Thank You For Not Smoking

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Other antismoking groups were formed, most notably the Non-Smokers Protective League of America, founded in 1911 by Dr. Charles G. Pease, a New York physician and dentist who regularly “arrested” smokers on trains, subways, and so on—activities which Dr. Pease later said earned him more than a dozen death threats and two “scouting” visits by local undertakers. Meanwhile, Lucy Page Gaston kept up the pressure. Fresh from her legislative victories in the Midwest, she took time out from publishing The Boy , the AntiCigarette League s monthly newspaper, to carry the fight to New York City in 1907 and again three years later. Although she failed in her attempt to have a cigarette prohibition law passed in Albany, both visits created a stir. In 1913 Gaston and Dr. D. H. Kress opened a smoking-cure clinic in the Women’s Temple in Chicago, the Anti-Cigarette League headquarters, and soon were flooded with repenitent cigarette smokers, mostly small boys but also a chorus girl or two. The “cure” consisted of painting the palate with a silver nitrate solution and chewing some gentian root whenever the smoking urge returned. Newspapermen who took it reported that the cure was very effective, in the short run at least, and similar clinics were soon in operation from Hoboken to Los Angeles.

In some respects, then, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were indeed the golden age of the antismoking movement. Cigarettes were anathema to millions of Americans, and feeling ran so strong in some areas that a traveling Chautauqua company in anticigarette Kansas deemed it prudent to use a dairy instead of a cigarette factory as the backdrop for a production of Carmen . There was, however, one rather vexing problem: Americans were smoking more cigarettes than ever before.

Cigarettes had suffered somewhat during the early years of the campaign; between 1896 and 1901, after more than thirty years of constant growth, cigarette sales actually declined, reaching a low point of about two billion in 1901. But the drop was only temporary; in 1902, following a tax reduction and the repeal of an 1897 ban on cigarette cards and coupons, sales went up, and by 1906 they had neared their former high of five billion. In 1910 Americans smoked almost eight billion “Fatimas,” “Meccas,” “Hassans,” “Helmars,” “Murads,” “Egyptian Deities,” and others; in 1917 some thirty-five billion cigarettes—now with names like “Camels,” “Lucky Strikes,” and “Chesterfields”—were consumed.

As those brand names indicate, between 1910 and 1917 American smokers shifted away from the American-made Turkish or pseudo-Turkish brands that had dominated the market since the late 1890’s. In the same period manufacturers dropped the use of coupons and prizes. “Camels,” introduced by R. J. Reynolds in 1913, were responsible for both developments. “Camels ” new blend of domestic and “cased” or sweetened Burley tobaccos quickly developed a large following—most cigarettes still use the same basic blend—and “Camels” killed the coupon and prize system with the following message, printed on the back of every pack: “Don’t look for premiums or coupons, as the cost of the tobaccos blended in CAMEL Cigarettes prohibits the use of them. ” The implication that coupons or prizes meant reduced quality was a master stroke; “Camels” soon captured more than a third of the American cigarette market, forcing the American Tobacco Company and Liggett & Myers to respond with the similarly blended “Lucky Strikes” and “Chesterfields.” Cigarette cards and coupons quickly disappeared, although Brown & Williamson revived the coupon system on a very limited basis in the 1930’s with “Raleighs.”

The American cigarette industry had prospered not only in spite of the extensive anticigarette activity but in some ways because of it. First, people simply liked cigarettes; they were cheap, easy to smoke, and were better suited than either pipes, cigars, or the ubiquitous rural plug for the frenetic pace of city life. Paradoxically, cigarettes were shedding their effeminate image while at the same time women were taking them up in ever-increasing numbers. Also, the antismokers’ exaggerated claims of the cigarette’s deleterious effects were impossible to sustain, and thus eventually proved self-defeating. Whatever reasonable argumerits the antismokers had to offer against cigarettes—and as recent developments indicate, they had the right idea but the wrong criteria—were lost in the barrage of idiotic pronouncements and ill-considered “facts.” (Physicians, particularly repelled by the hysteria, were quick to leap to the cigarette’s defense; only in the past thirty years or so has the medical profession as a group joined in condemning cigarette smoking.) Finally, cigarettes benefited from that almost perverse quality of human nature that makes what is despised and outlawed by some people—particularly Sunday-school teachers and reformers—absolutely irresistible to others. By the beginning of the First World War, then, most even marginally sophisticated Americans regarded the anticigarette, antismoking crusade with cheerful ambivalence, an attitude nicely summed up in the following pithy lines first published in the Penn State Froth in 1915: