Cigarette Century


World War II, like World War I, gave cigarette smoking an enormous boost. Cigarettes were sold at military-post exchanges and ships’ stores tax-free and virtually at cost—usually for a nickel a pack—and they were distributed free in the forward areas and were packaged in K rations.

The 1950s were the golden age of cigarettes on television. Arthur Godfrey would sign off at the end of his Chesterfield-sponsored variety show, saying, “This is Arthur ‘Buy-’em-by-the-carton’ Godfrey!” (The message was dropped in 1959 when Godfrey himself was found to have lung cancer. He underwent removal of the lung followed by radiation therapy, made a remarkable recovery, and lived for twenty-four years afterward.) When John Cameron Swayze anchored “The Camel News Caravan” in the early days of television, the sponsor required him to have a burning cigarette visible whenever he was on camera. Likewise, Edward R. Murrow was never seen on air without a cigarette; he died of lung cancer in 1965. But during the 1960s the tide turned against cigarettes on TV.

The change had begun in 1955, when Surgeon General Leroy E. Burney invited representatives of the National Cancer Institute, the National Heart Institute, the American Cancer Society, and the American Heart Association to establish a study group to assess the mounting evidence of links between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. The group concluded that a causal relationship did indeed exist, and late in 1959 Dr. Burney published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association stating the Public Health Service’s position: Cigarette smokine caused cancer.


The reports received little notice at the time, but as the 1960s got under way, agitation began to grow for the adoption of an official government position on smoking and health. In May 1962 an enterprising reporter pressured President John F. Kennedy on the subject at a press conference. The President plainly was caught off guard: “The—that matter is sensitive enough and the stock market is in sufficient difficulty without my giving you an answer which is not based on complete information, which I don’t have, and therefore perhaps we could—I’d be glad to respond to that question in more detail next week.”

Not long afterward Kennedy announced that he was assigning his surgeon general, Dr. Luther Terry, the responsibility for a study of smoking and health. He assured Dr. Terry that he expected an expert scientific review and would allow no political interference.

In July 1962 the surgeon general and his staff met with representatives of various medical associations and volunteer organizations, the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, the Departments of Agriculture and Commerce, the Federal Communications Commission, the President’s Office of Science and Technology, and the industry-backed Tobacco Institute. The representatives were given a list of 150 eminent biomedical scientists, none of whom had taken a major public position on smoking; from this list they were to propose a committee of ten members and to strike any name to which they objected for any reason.

All of the first ten scientists contacted agreed to serve; three were cigarette smokers. They began meeting in November 1962 and worked for fourteen months before submitting their formal report, which was released at a press conference on January 11, 1964. Known ever after as the Surgeon General’s Report, it indicted smoking as a major cause of lung cancer in men and as a contributing cause of many forms of chronic lung disease.

After the report came out, the Federal Trade Commission issued the Trade Regulation Rules on Cigarette Labeling and Advertising, which, as of January 1,1966, required that all cigarette packages carry a warning (“Caution, Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health”), that cigarette advertising not be directed at people under twenty-five or at schools or colleges, and that no claims be made for the healthfulness of filters or cigarette products.

The industry’s Tobacco Institute protested the new rules: “We respectfully submit that in these Trade Regulation Rules the Commission is … plainly legislating.” Few could deny the substance of the allegation, but a tradition of “delegated authority” had long been emerging between Congress and its administrative agencies, so the legal question became one of the limits of that delegation. It has largely been resolved in favor of the agencies.

The tobacco companies received a further blow in 1970, when after two years of lobbying, the Federal Trade Commission persuaded Congress to pass the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act. The bill had two main provisions: a stronger warning was to appear not only on cigarette packages but in print advertisements as well (“Warning: The Surgeon General Has Determined That Cigarette Smoking Is Dangerous to Your Health”), and all cigarette advertising was to be banned from radio and television. This time Congress itself issued the restrictive ruling. Challenged in the courts by the tobacco industry, the legislation was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1972. In 1984 the warning was made stronger again, establishing today’s four alternating messages: “Cigarette Smoke Contains Carbon Monoxide”; “Quitting Smoking Now Greatly Reduces Serious Risks to Your Health”; “Smoking by Pregnant Women May Result in Fetal Injury, Premature Birth, and Low Birth Weight”; and “Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, and May Complicate Pregnancy.”