- Historic Sites
Thank You For Not Smoking
THE HUNDRED-YEAR WARAGAINST THE CIGARETTE
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
Although bills to prohibit cigarettes were considered in more than a dozen states—including Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, California, Montana, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Delaware, and even North Carolina—only the Oklahoma Territory prohibited cigarette sales during the 1901 legislative session, a development the anticigarette forces attributed, with some justification, to the well-financed lobbying of the Tobacco Trust. Accusations of bribery were common whenever anticigarette bills were considered. When the Washington legislature considered its 1893 anticigarette law, for example, the Tobacco Trust reportedly dispatched a lobbyist to Olympia armed with twenty thousand dollars in cash to change legislators’ minds, but he arrived too late to bring the largesse to bear. In Indiana in 1905 an alleged briber was forced to flee the country—with a three-thousand-dollar reward on his head—after he tried to buy a pro-cigarette vote. As an anonymous source within the cigarette industry later recalled the situation, “A bill would be introduced to a legislature to prohibit the manufacture or sale of cigarettes; it would be referred to a committee and our people would have to get busy and pay somebody to see that it died.” Such heavy-handed tactics did little to endear the Tobacco Trust—which controlled nearly 90 per cent of American cigarette production—to the American public, and even after the Trust was obstensibly dissolved by court order in 1911, the tough lobbying activities of the successor tobacco companies continued to rankle.
The defeat of any given anticigarette bill hardly resolved the matter, however; the anticigarette forces—Lucy Page Gaston in particular—were nothing if not persistent, and legislators could be sure that they would be back in the next session, and if necessary, the next. And eventually, it seemed, they would win, since cigarettes had many enemies in legislative committee rooms and precious few friends. That was particularly true in the Midwest, where cigarette consumption was low and anticigarette feeling high.
Anticigarette successes continued to mount. Wisconsin and Nebraska banned cigarette sales in 1905. In that l same year, Indiana prohibited even their possession, and Indiana cigarette dealers tried frantically to dispose of their supplies before the new law took effect; one overstocked dealer burned his in the street. Two years later Arkansas and Illinois likewise banned cigarette sales, although the Illinois Supreme Court soon struck down the Illinois law on a technicality, a decision that prompted Lucy Page Gaston to initiate an unsuccessful campaign to allow the recall of state supreme court justices. Kansas, Washington, South Dakota, and Minnesota joined the cigarette prohibition ranks in 1909, and the day before the Minnesota law took effect, Minneapolis cigarette smokers reportedly bought more than a million to see them through the lean days ahead.
Where state governments failed to act, municipal ones often took the initiative. Even New York City jumped on the antismoking bandwagon, in a sexist sort of way, when in 1908 the Board of Aldermen passed an ordinance prohibiting public smoking by women. (The fact that such an ordinance was considered necessary indicates how rapidly women were taking up the habit.) The ordinance was vetoed two weeks later by Mayor McClellan, but not before twenty-nine year-old Katie Mulcahey was arrested and jailed for lighting a cigarette in front of a policeman and then compounding the crime by asserting, “No man shall dictate to me.”
While legislators pondered anticigarette bills, the educational campaign continued. “There are in the United States to-day 500,000 boys and youths who are habitual cigarette smokers,” Education magazine told its readers in 1907. “Few of them can be educated beyond the eighth grade, and practically all of them are destined to remain physical and mental dwarfs.” The same publication later offered a number of terse case histories: “Case No. 1: Began habit at 4, taught by boys 6 and 7. Almost physical wreck now at 13. Sight poor, voice like a ghost, hearing impaired. Steals. In first grade.” Or “Case No. 4: Began smoking at 10. Mind shattered at 14. Tried several positions, failed. A worthless loafer now.” But boys were no longer the sole target of the antismoking campaign. Businessmen’s views on the subject were being widely circulated, the general tone being that cigarette smoking was a handicap in the job market. Montgomery Ward, Sears, Roebuck, and hundreds of other firms were said to discriminate against cigarette users, and one antismoker later cheerfully estimated that more than two million jobs were closed to them. A host of the famous joined the anticigarette crusade, including Elbert Hubbard, author of “A Message to Garcia” and a lesser-known pamphlet called “The Cigarettist”; Thomas Edison, a cigar smoker who refused to hire cigarette smokers; and Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, father of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and author of a 1916 Good Housekeeping article called “The Little White Slaver. ” Even Henry Ford joined in, publishing in 1916 a pamphlet called “The Case Against the Little White Slaver.”