When health went up in smoke

Those electronic screens in doctors’ exam rooms, slowly flipping through displays of medical information for the waiting patient, don’t offer the most exciting reading in the world, but they beat staring at a blank wall. So it was that while waiting for my consultation last week, I read three different times the same series of statements about the dangers of tobacco use. That made me think back about the pro-smoking environment that existed before we finally began to come to our senses.

The part of North Carolina in which I grew up was devoted mostly to cotton farming, while tobacco ruled more to the north and east in the state. But it seemed as if most adult males, no matter in what part of the state, used tobacco pretty much constantly, and a few farms nearby began to grow, cure, and sell it soon after World War II ended. I hired out occasionally to a neighbor to help with gathering the mature leaves, stacking them on a mule-drawn, narrow sled moving between the rows, to be hauled to the tobacco barn for curing. So I claim to have a connection with the “evil weed” from its birth to the moment when I destroyed much of it by lighting a cigarette, pipe, or cigar, and drawing the smoke into my lungs.

Smoking as well as other uses of tobacco surrounded me. Adults would warn us children that we should never smoke because “it’ll stunt your growth.” That didn’t seem like a huge price to pay; more to the point, it didn’t seem believable. I knew one neighboring family that allowed their youngest son, the same age as I was, to smoke freely and publicly. He rolled his own, using readily available cigarette papers and Prince Albert tobacco. I envied him, taking note of how grown-up he seemed and of the fact that his growth didn’t seem stunted at all. But I knew better than to ask my parents to let me smoke. So I just slipped around to do it.

I have written before, not by way of bragging, but just admitting the truth, about swiping packs of my dad’s cigarettes. I rarely had any money, but on one occasion I had the necessary 18 cents, was on a rare trip to the county seat, and bought a pack of Old Golds. The counterman handed them over without question. I was 11 years old.

I saw the county school superintendent only rarely, but when I did, he usually had a cigarette in his hand. Many of my teachers smoked, and for a couple of years, starting when I was about the age when I bought that first pack of Old Golds, there was a semi-official smoking area behind the agriculture classroom and shop at school, where teachers who smoked, along with students who allegedly had their parents’ permission, could go during recess and puff away. Nobody, to my knowledge, ever asked for proof of parental permission. I smoked there on occasion.

In my youth, there were no restrictions on tobacco advertising, and the slogans and claims became fixed in our brains. The producer of Old Golds claimed there was “not a cough in a carload.” Lucky Strike printed and shouted their main slogan, “LS/MFT — Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco.” When WWII started, Lucky Strike abandoned its bright green package and changed to white, claiming it was helping the war effort by not using a scarce element required for the green color. They bragged incessantly, “Lucky Strike green has gone to war.” Turns out the change did little or nothing for the war effort, but boosted sales of Lucky Strike, apparently the objective from the beginning. Meanwhile, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company pushed its highly popular Camels with the slogan, “I’d walk a mile for a Camel.” When Reynolds, in the 1950s, gave my college a new campus and a sizable endowment to move from the village of Wake Forest across the state to Winston-Salem, the college newspaper said, “we’d walk 150 miles for a Camel.” Reynolds came out with Winston cigarettes about that time. They claimed that, “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should,” setting on edge the teeth of countless English majors, who said it should be “as,” not “like.”

Students at my college who were smokers were mostly free to smoke during class. So were the professors, and many took advantage of the opportunity. One very senior professor, though, had new hardwood floors in his classroom, and he forbade smoking. Students who were smokers thought he was really being unfair and restricting their rights.

We learned a lot in college. Sad that, despite our learning, we were incredibly dumb about some things.