Thank You For Not Smoking

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Tobacco is a dirty weed. I like it. It satisfies no normal need. I like it. It makes you thin, it makes you lean, It takes the hair right off your bean, It’s the worst darn stuff I’ve ever seen. I like it.

As popular antipathy toward cigarettes waned, so did the legislative fortunes of the anticigarette movement. The cigarette prohibition laws had never been very effective anyway; state legislators had been easily pursuaded to pass them when faced with well-organized pressure groups, but enforcement was quite another matter. After the usual rush to dispose of (or at least hide) their cigarettes, tobacco dealers found that they could sell them without too much fear of prosecution. They were also easily available by mail, and in states where “giving away” cigarettes was not specifically prohibited, matches sometimes were sold for ten cents with the cigarettes thrown in “free.” In 1909 Indiana admitted defeat and repealed its cigarette prohibition law, leaving only the ban on sales to minors. Washington followed in 1911, Minnesota in 1913, Wisconsin and Oklahoma in 1915, and South Dakota in 1917. Even in those states where cigarette prohibition laws remained on the books, cigarette sales continued to climb. For the anticigarette movement it was a most discouraging turn of events, and the worst—in the form of World War I—was still to come.

The war did great things for cigarettes, and for smoking in general. No less an authority than General Pershing himself declared that tobacco was “as indispensable as the daily ration,” and Army doctors sent home glowing accounts of the cigarette’s salutary effects on wounded soldiers: “Wonderful,” one Army surgeon reported from France. “As soon as the lads take their first ‘whiff’ they seem eased and relieved of their agony.” The home front responded enthusiastically to the call for more. An Army Girl’s Transport Tobacco Fund and the National Gigarette Service Committee sent millions of cigarettes overseas, and even the YMCA, which previously had campaigned against smoking, sold and gave away cigarettes in the trenches. Finally, in 1918, the War Department bestowed official government blessings on the smoking habit by making tobacco part of the daily ration. Cigarettes were no longer “coffin nails” or “little white slavers”; they were healthy, masculine, and—whoever would have thought it possible?—downright patriotic.

And that might have been the end of America’s first great antismoking movement, and of this article, were l it not for two important facts: first, we still have to get Bamberger and his colleagues out of the Salt Lake County jail, and second, in January, 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified by the states.

If the war provided a lift for cigarettes and smoking’s social standing, passage of the “dry” amendment provided an even greater lift for the war-demoralized antismoking movement. If drinking could so easily be legislated out of existence, why not smoking? “Prohibition is won; now for tobacco, declared the evangelist Billy Sunday, and throughout the early postwar years rumors of an impending WCTU campaign to enact the “Nineteenth Amendment” were rife.

“The creaking tumbrel which carted King Alcohol to the gallows has been turned around and started back after Lady Nicotine,” the Cincinnati Times-Star reported in 1919. “The time when the suggestion of tobacco prohibition could be laughed at has passed,” the New York World warned, and even the moderate New York Times noted that “the Nineteenth Amendment shoves a saintly nose above the horizon.”

 

The WCTU and the Anti-Saloon League denied that tobacco was next on the prohibition hit list, and at its “Victory Convention” in St. Louis in 1919 the WCTU vowed to continue its educational campaign against smoking but resoundingly defeated a resolution calling for an anti-tobacco amendment. Reports of a tobacco prohibition drive were a plot by the “wets” to turn the country against alcohol prohibition, the WCTU charged.

Still, there were signs that a new antismoking crusade—if not a concerted campaign for a tobacco prohibition amendment—was under way In 1919 the Indiana legislature, for example, considered but did not pass a bill to not only ban all public smoking—with offenders to be sentenced to hard labor—but to prohibit smokers from holding public office. “This savage filth must cease,” one Indiana legislator declared. Presbyterians, Northern Baptists, and Methodists all called for a nationwide antismoking campaign, and even Lucy Page Gaston got back in the headlines.