Thank You For Not Smoking

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The legislative campaign against smoking began in earnest in the 1890’s. Cigarettes were the primary target; pipes and cigars initially were excluded from the battle, but later the scope was broadened to include public smoking in any form, as Mr. Bamberger and his associates would find out. Although the campaign attracted a number of organizations and individuals, particularly the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, its most indefatigable warrior was a now almost forgotten WCTU alumna named Lucy Page Gaston.

Born in Ohio in 1860 and raised in Illinois, she came early to the reform business when, as a student at the Illinois State Normal School, she led raids on local saloons and tobacco shops. She began her anticigarette campaign in the early 1890’s, after ten years as a school teacher and Sunday-school instructor and after having been a full-time WCTU worker and journalist. Initially she confined her efforts to the Chicago area, but in the late 1890’s she branched out into neighboring states, addressing school and church assemblies (audiences already primed by the thousands of antismoking tracts distributed by the WCTU), organizing girls’ and boys’ anticigarette organizations and administering the “Clean Life Pledge” en masse: “I hereby pledge myself with the help of God to abstain from all intoxicating liquors as a beverage and from the use of tobacco in any form.” Pledgees were entitled to wear the Clean Life Button. Convinced that anticigarette legislation was necessary to protect the youth of America, Gaston haunted city halls and state capitols, demanding prompt action and, to that end, making life miserable for any state legislator or town councilman unlucky enough not to see her coming. Once anticigarette laws or ordinances were passed, she pressed for strict enforcement. The Chicago police chief, no doubt weary of Gaston’s prodding, finally deputized her to arrest violators of the new antismoking laws, and within ten years she went to court more than six hundred times to prosecute tobacco dealers who sold their wares to children.

 

In 1899, with the financial and moral backing of a group of Chicago businessmen, Gaston founded the Ghicago AntiCigarette League, which spawned similar leagues throughout the Midwest. In 1901 several hundred anticigarette leagues, claiming a combined membership of almost 300,000, were loosely combined as the National Anti-Cigarette League, with Lucy Page Gaston as superintendent. The goal of the National Anti-Cigarette League (later renamed the Anti-Cigarette League of America and still later the International AntiCigarette League) was simple: the total abolition of the cigarette from American life, by force of law if necessary.

There were some early reversals in the campaign. In 1892 Congress was deluged with petitions from WCTU groups stating that cigarettes were “causing insanity and death to thousands” of American youths and demanding federal abolition of the cigarette trade. The Senate’s committee on epidemic diseases studied the cigarette problem but concluded that it was a state matter. A year later Washington prohibited the sale of cigarettes within the state—not only to minors, but to adults as well—but a few months later a federal court struck down the law. Still, by the turn of the century most states had banned cigarette and tobacco sales to minors. The anticigarette movement clearly was gaining momentum. Between 1895 and 1897 North Dakota, Iowa, and Tennessee banned the sale of cigarettes or cigarette papers, but the laws generally were ignored until 1900, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Tennessee statute. The decision prompted the American Tobacco Company to notify its dealers in those states that it would no longer back them up if they were prosecuted for selling cigarettes, and cigarette dealers, fearing a crackdown by state authorities, scrambled to dispose of their wares. The court’s decision also bolstered the spirits of the anticigarette forces and spurred them to greater efforts; by early 1901 anticigarette legislation was a major topic in state capitols across the country, as the following Chicago Tribune headline makes clear:

Movement Afoot To Suppress Use

Of Tobacco In Deadly Form

LAWS ARE BEINt; FORMED

Nearly Every Legislature Considering

Best Measures For Restriction

PROGRESS OF THE CRUSADE

The accompanying article revealed that only Wyoming and Louisiana had paid no attention to the cigarette controversy, while the other forty-three states either already had anticigarette laws on the books, were considering new or tougher anticigarette laws, or were the scenes of heavy anticigarette activity. The pending legislation ranged from bans on sales to minors to a bill introduced in the Indiana legislature that would have banned public cigarette smoking by anyone, with violators to be jailed, fined, and “disenfranchised and rendered incapable of holding any office of trust or profit.”