Thank You For Not Smoking

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Cigarettes were particularly appealing to boys, since they were cheap enough (at ten or twenty for a nickel) and mild enough to allow even the smallest boy to emulate his pipe- and cigar-smoking elders without suffering the drastic side-effects that pipes and cigars usually inflicted on immature smokers. By the mid-1880’s cigarette-smoking boys were a common sight on any urban street corner, and even rural areas had their youthful “cigarette fiends.” Cigarette manufacturers, for their part, exacerbated the problem through the use of cards and coupons, one of which was placed in every pack. They bore a photograph or lithograph on one side and usually an explanatory note on the other, and each was one of a numbered set, the object being to collect all the cards in any given set. Later James B. Duke of W. Duke, Sons & Co. (who in 1890 would combine the five largest cigarette companies into the American Tobacco Company, also known as the Tobacco Trust) pioneered the coupon system, whereby a specified number of “vouchers’ found in cigarette packs could be redeemed for a lithograph album. Card sets bore such titles as “Fifty Scenes of Perilous Occupations,” “Lives of Poor Boys Who Became Rich,” and “Flags of All Nations” among dozens of others. Perhaps even more educational were such series as “Actresses,” “Gems of Beauty,” and Duke’s popular “Sporting Girls” album (available for seventy-five coupons). All the cards and albums were in great demand by the younger set, who traded and gambled them with all the adolescent fervor later afforded bubble-gum baseball and football cards.

Parents, on the other hand, were outraged.

“There is no question that demands more public attention than the prevailing methods of cigarette manufacturers to foster and stimulate smoking among children,” one irate New Yorker said in 1888, presaging a complaint that would continue, with considerable justification, for the next ninety years. “At the office of a leading factory in this city you can see any Saturday afternoon a crowd of children with vouchers clamoring for the reward of self-inflicted injury.”

Nor were the “self-inflicted injuries” courted by young smokers confined to the potential, long-term maladies—lung cancer, heart disease, and so on—now associated with cigarette smoking. On the contrary, in the 1880’s and 1890’s the cigarette’s effects on smokers were thought to be not only immediate and debilitating but also often fatal. Consider the following case, as reported by The New York Times in 1890.

CIGARETTE SMOKING KILLED HIM

“New Jersey—The death of eight-year-old Willie Major, a farmer’s son, from excessive cigarette smoking is reported from Bound Brook. The boy had for over three years been a victim to the habit. He would stay away from home several days at a time, eating nothing but the herbs and berries of the neighborhood and smoking constantly. Sunday he became ill and delirious. He died Tuesday in frightful convulsions.”

There were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of similar case histories.

Even if death did not immediately claim the young smoker, failing health surely would. Among the maladies attributed to cigarette smoking were color blindness, “tobacco ambylopia” (a weakening of the eyesight), baldness, stunted growth, insanity, sterility, drunkenness, impotence (or sexual promiscuity, depending on the point to be made), mustaches on women, and that traditional bugaboo of nineteenthcentury America, constipation. No less alarming was the moral dissipation caused by cigarettes, a process cogently described by New York school commissioner Charles Hubbell in 1893: “Many and many a bright lad has had his will power weakened, his moral principle sapped, his nervous system wrecked, and his whole life spoiled before he is seventeen years old by the detestable cigarette. The ‘cigarette fiend’ in time becomes a liar and a thief. He will commit petty thefts to get money to feed his insatiable appetite for nicotine. He lies to his parents, his teachers, and his best friends. He neglects his studies and, narcotized by nicotine, sits at his desk half stupefied, his desire for work, his ambition, dulled if not dead.”

For all these reasons, cigarettes had by the 1890’s managed to arouse the ire of a major portion of the American public, pipe and cigar smokers included. It was thus only to be expected that parents, teachers, juvenile authorities, and particularly reformers would agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment (if not the grammar) of the following plea, published by the Annapolis Evening Capital in 1886 and echoed by antismokers for the next forty years: “Something heroic must be done for the suppression of this monstrous evil or the coming American man will be a pigmy and a disgrace to their race. Let our Legislature come to their rescue.”

The Maryland legislature, perhaps fearful of the state’s tobacco industry, failed to respond to the plea. Other legislatures would not be so timid.