Antismoking Movement Before 1950

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Antismoking Movement Before 1950

Antismoking activism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was especially influential in the United States compared with other parts of the world, and focused on cigarettes in particular rather than other forms of tobacco, such as cigars and pipe smoking.

The rapid expansion of the American cigarette industry in the late 1880s alarmed many people in the United States, including temperance workers, religious leaders, health reformers, businesspeople, educators, eugenicists, and even a few manufacturers of pipe tobacco and cigars, who resented the competition. These people shared the conviction that cigarette smoking was a dangerous new habit, particularly seductive to the young, and likely to lead to the use of alcohol and other drugs. They also believed that cigarettes were addictive and unhealthy; that secondhand smoke could harm the health of nonsmokers; and that exposure to parental smoke was harmful to children, including unborn children.

These sentiments gave rise to an anticigarette movement that enjoyed a surprising degree of legislative and judicial success during the Progressive era (roughly the first two decades of the twentieth century). A total of fifteen states, beginning with Washington in 1893 and ending with Utah in 1921, banned the sale, manufacture, possession, or use of cigarettes altogether (see sidebar). At least twenty-two other states and territories considered such legislation. Many municipalities imposed further restrictions, including making it illegal for women to smoke in public, outlawing smoking in or around school buildings, and outlawing certain kinds of advertising.

State Cigarette Prohibition Laws (in Order of Adoption)

W ashington: enacted 1893, repealed 1895, reenacted 1907, repealed 1911

North Dakota: enacted 1895, repealed 1925

Iowa: enacted 1896, repealed 1921

Tennessee: enacted 1897, repealed 1919

Oklahoma: enacted 1901, repealed 1919

Indiana: enacted 1905, repealed 1909

Wisconsin: enacted 1905, repealed 1915

Arkansas: enacted 1907, repealed 1921

Illinois: enacted 1907, law declared unconstitutional six months later, formally repealed 1967

Nebraska: enacted 1909, repealed 1919

Kansas: enacted 1909, repealed 1927

Minnesota: enacted 1909, repealed 1913

South Dakota: enacted 1909, repealed 1917

Idaho: enacted 1921, repealed by same session of legislature, 1921

Utah: enacted 1921, repealed 1923

Congress rejected several petitions to prohibit the sale, manufacture, and importation of cigarettes at the federal level, but at least one congressional committee was sympathetic to the idea. Responding to a petition from the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1892, the Senate Committee on Epidemic Diseases agreed that cigarettes were a public health hazard and urged the petitioners to seek remedies from the states. Although a number of lower courts ruled that states did not have the constitutional authority to restrict cigarettes, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the validity of such laws in an important decision (Austin v. Tennessee) announced in 1901.

A New Threat

Cigarettes attracted opposition partly because they were new to the American market and thus less entrenched than other forms of tobacco. Americans chewed more tobacco than they smoked, and when they smoked, they overwhelmingly preferred pipes or cigars. Some of the most vociferous opponents of cigarettes were themselves users of other kinds of tobacco. For example, the inventor Thomas Edison puffed his way through ten to twenty cigars a day, yet he believed cigarettes were "poison" and refused to hire anyone who smoked them.

Cigarettes were targeted because of their cultural connections. The first significant groups to smoke machine-made cigarettes in the United States were immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, where cigarette smoking was common. Daring members of the upper classes smoked expensive hand-rolled brands. Middle-class reformers in the American heartland deeply distrusted the habits of both the avant-garde and the foreign born. Even the New York Times, usually a voice of urbane opinion, warned that "the decadence of Spain began when the Spaniards adopted cigarettes, and if this pernicious practice obtains among adult Americans the ruin of the Republic is close at hand" in a 29 January 1884 article.

The case against cigarettes included the charge that they were unhealthy, even fatal. Newspapers published stories with headlines such as "Cigarettes Killed Him" and "Cigarette Fiend Dies." Although organized medicine took little interest in the subject until the 1950s, health reformers such as John Harvey Kellogg (the breakfast cereal entrepreneur) identified cigarettes as a cause of heart disease, emphysema, and most of the other health problems associated with smoking in the twenty-first century. The major exception was lung cancer, which was relatively rare until the 1930s. Cigarettes became known as "coffin nails" in the late nineteenth century because of their association with disease.

A Gateway Drug

The people who launched the first war against cigarettes were not primarily concerned about the impact of smoking on health. They gave much more attention to the role of cigarettes as a gateway to alcohol and drug use and from there to gambling, prostitution, and crime. As one writer warned, "The boy who smokes at seven, will drink whiskey at fourteen, take to morphine at 20 or 25, and wind up with cocaine and the rest of the narcotics, at 30 and later on" (Bremer 1892).

The reformers disagreed about exactly how smoking led to drinking. Some thought a particular component in cigarette smoke somehow blunted the nervous system, making smokers more susceptible to the allure of alcohol. Edison blamed acrolein, which he thought was produced by the combustion of cigarette paper. The substance, he said, caused "permanent and uncontrollable" degeneration of the brain cells, leaving the smoker at the mercy of baser instincts (Ford 1914). In any case, of all the charges against cigarettes during the Progressive era, the one that was most influential was the one that linked them to alcohol. At that time many people believed that the abuse of alcohol was a serious social problem; they were receptive to any effort to curb it.

Because cigarettes became more available to American consumers at a time of heightened concern about narcotics, they also came under suspicion as agents of drug use, either directly or indirectly. Cigarettes were often called "dope sticks" or "paper pills" (pill was a common term for opium after it was prepared for smoking); people who smoked them were "cigarette fiends"; people who manufactured and sold them were engaged in "the cigarette traffic." These pejoratives implied that cigarettes were part of a web of vice that included prostitution and drug abuse.

"Race Poison"

The tenets of Social Darwinism provided another part of the framework for the antismoking movement. Using Charles Darwin's theory of evolution as a starting point, writers such as Josiah Strong, a Congregationalist minister and author of the best-selling Our Country (1885), concluded that Americans of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant heritage were destined to rule the world. However, this destiny could be thwarted by the devitalizing influence of alcohol and tobacco.

Although Strong himself did not single out cigarettes as being any more debilitating than other forms of tobacco, many of his followers did. As proof, they pointed to Spain, which had embraced cigarettes earlier and with more enthusiasm than any other country. In an era of rapid industrial growth and imperial expansion, Spain was being eclipsed by nations that favored pipes or cigars. The outcome of the Spanish-American War in 1898 (which Spain lost) seemed to offer further evidence of the negative effects of cigarette smoking.

Social Darwinism led to eugenics, an effort to encourage the reproduction of people with supposedly superior genetic characteristics (and to discourage reproduction among people with "inferior" characteristics). Eugenicists attacked tobacco as a "race poison" that caused infertility in adults and infirmity in any children born to tobacco-smoking parents. Cigarettes were considered particularly dangerous because their smoke was more likely to be inhaled, and thus could cause greater damage to internal organs, including those involved in reproduction. Adolf Hitler would use similar arguments as a rationale for enacting a strong antitobacco program in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and early 1940s.

The Anti-Cigarette League

The anticigarette campaign gained momentum in December 1899, when Lucy Page Gaston, an alumna of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (a group that advocated laws to restrict the sale of alcohol and drugs in the United States), founded the Anti-Cigarette League of America. The League was endorsed by a broad range of prominent Americans, including David Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford University; Harvey W. Wiley, the first administrator of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Benjamin B. Lindsey, a famous juvenile court judge; Irving Fisher, a leading economist; and automaker Henry Ford, whose interests ranged from prohibition to peace. By 1901, the League claimed a membership of 300,000 (mostly schoolchildren), with a paid staff overseeing chapters throughout the United States and Canada.

The League's primary support came from groups advocating the prohibition of alcohol, including the WCTU; and temperance-oriented Protestant service organizations, such as the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) and the Salvation Army. (Advocates of temperance sought to discourage the use of alcohol but did not necessarily campaign for prohibitory laws.) William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, condemned all smoking as unclean, injurious to health, wasteful, disagreeable to others, unnatural, and self-indulgent. Officials of the YMCA disapproved of smoking in general but particularly objected to cigarettes. The organization provided a forum for anticigarette activists in the United States, and published their writings, publicized their activities, and invited them to lecture in YMCA facilities.

The League's activities included demonstrations for schools and churches, temperance and business groups. For example, the field secretary for Michigan reported that he had lectured in eighty-five churches during one four-month period in 1912. These efforts brought in little money, but they kept the League's name and its cause before the public.

The League also promoted a stop-smoking "cure" that involved painting the smoker's throat with silver nitrate. The chemical reacted with elements in cigarette smoke to produce extreme nausea. The League featured the cure at three stop-smoking clinics (at its headquarters in Chicago, Illinois; and in Detroit, Michigan, and Cincinnati, Ohio). Other antismoking activists opened similar clinics in New Jersey, California, and Washington State. Several were administered by juvenile court judges, who offered young offenders a choice between taking the cure or going to detention, on the theory that cigarettes encouraged criminal behavior.

Lucy Page Gaston

L ucy Page Gaston, a schoolteacher and later a journalist in Illinois, was a key figure in the first anticigarette campaign.

Gaston was born on 19 May 1860, in Delaware, Ohio, and raised in Lacon, Illinois, near Chicago. She grew up in a family that was strongly committed to the principles of moral reform. Her father, Alexander Hugh Gaston, was a nonsmoking, nondrinking abolitionist. Her mother, Henrietta Page Gaston, was active in the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). A younger brother, Edward Page Gaston, was a prominent prohibitionist in the United States and Great Britain. (Prohibitionists sought laws to ban the sale, manufacture, and use of beverage alcohol.)

As a student at the Illinois State Normal School in Bloomington in 1881, Gaston led raids on local saloons and gambling halls. She later became friends with American prohibitionist Carry Nation, who became famous for smashing fixtures in bars with a hatchet; and with Frances Willard, president of the WCTU.

Gaston became interested in cigarettes as a social issue while working as a schoolteacher in the early 1880s. She was disturbed by the boys she saw sneaking behind the schoolhouse to smoke cigarettes. She believed cigarette smokers were more likely to drink, use other drugs, gamble, visit prostitutes, and otherwise slide into moral decay.

By the early 1890s, she was working as a journalist for reform-oriented newspapers and magazines near Chicago but devoting more and more time to the campaign against cigarettes. After founding the Anti-Cigarette League of America in 1899, she spent the rest of her life in a quest to rid the world of what she called the "evil" or the "curse" of cigarettes. Her slogan was "A Smokeless America by 1925."

Gaston and the League played a role in the adoption of anticigarette legislation in a dozen states, including Illinois, in the years before the United States entered World War I. The League also operated stop-smoking clinics, distributed antismoking materials to schoolchildren, and sent lecturers to schools, churches, and civic groups around the country.

However, Gaston's impolitic statements against the distribution of cigarettes to soldiers during the war cost her the leadership of the anticigarette movement. In a letter to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, she said it was "the greatest folly" to "dope up" soldiers with cigarettes (Tate). She remained committed to legislating cigarettes out of existence long after most of her earlier supporters had changed their minds about the value of such laws. She was forced to resign as superintendent of the League in 1918.

Gaston made several attempts to set up rival organizations, but these all failed. With no regular salary, she was forced to rely on handouts from relatives and charities. Even in these reduced circumstances, she continued to campaign for the prohibition of cigarettes. She kept up the battle until January 1924, when she was run over by a streetcar after leaving an anticigarette rally in Chicago. She died six months later, at age sixty-four. Ironically, the cause of death was throat cancer, a disease often linked to the use of tobacco.

"Smokes for Soldiers"

On the eve of the U.S. entry into World War I in 1917, the sale of cigarettes to adults as well as minors was illegal in eight states and anticigarette bills were pending in nearly two dozen other states. By the end of the war, however, the first anticigarette movement had begun to collapse.

The war undercut the opposition to cigarettes in several ways. It diverted the attention of reformers who had previously supported the cause. At the same time, the war elevated the image of cigarettes, turning them into icons of manliness and virtue. Congress ordered the War Department to include cigarettes in the rations issued to soldiers overseas and to make them available at low prices to soldiers at home and abroad. Americans from all walks of life supported private "Smokes for Soldiers" campaigns to augment these supplies. Many groups that had once been hostile to cigarettes—including the YMCA and the Salvation Army—helped provide them to servicemen.

A primary rationale for distribution was that cigarettes could help soldiers avoid the temptations of what one newspaper editor called "bad liquor and worse women" (Tate 1999). The reformers were determined to "make the world safe for democracy" with an army that was chaste and sober. Cigarettes were both a distraction from and a compensation for the deprivations of military life. One YMCA report quoted a soldier as saying that the troops could "keep sober a long time" if they had enough cigarettes (Tate).

After the war, the only groups with the potential power to mount an effective campaign against cigarettes in the United States were preoccupied with ratifying and then enforcing the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited the sale of alcohol. There was a brief flurry of proposed anticigarette legislation in the early 1920s, much of it prompted by increased smoking by women, but little of it passed. By mid-decade, adults could legally buy and smoke cigarettes in every state but Kansas, which finally capitulated in 1927. Only those laws intended to protect minors (by setting minimum age limits for buying cigarettes) survived the decade.

Representatives of the tobacco industry lobbied for the repeal of anticigarette laws but a more significant factor was the need to replace revenue lost to prohibition. With states no longer able to collect money by licensing and taxing the sale of alcohol, many turned to cigarettes as a substitute. North Dakota, Iowa, and Kansas imposed state taxes and license fees when they legalized cigarettes. Legislators also were sympathetic to lobbyists from the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, who argued that anticigarette laws were unpatriotic.

The Next Generation

Yet even as the first anticigarette movement was dying out in the United States, the groundwork was being laid for its successor. After largely ignoring the issue for decades, the medical profession began giving more attention to the impact of smoking on health. The New England Journal of Medicine published the first of a new generation of studies showing a statistical link between smoking and disease in 1928. Researchers H. L. Lombard and C. R. Doering studied 217 cancer victims in Massachusetts and found that most of those with site-specific cancers (lung, lips, cheeks, and jaw) were heavy smokers. The next year an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested that sidestream smoke might be harmful to nonsmokers. German scientists working under Hitler conducted studies that suggested a link between smoking and lung cancer. By 1940, more than forty studies identifying cigarettes as a health risk had been published. Three important epidemiological studies provided even more powerful evidence of the link between smoking and lung cancer in 1950. These reports, carrying the authority of modern science, provided the basis for an anticigarette campaign that began in the 1960s.

The first generation of anticigarette activists differed from their modern counterparts primarily in the matter of emphasis. These activists gave more attention to saving individual smokers than to protecting nonsmokers; they sought to prohibit the sale of cigarettes altogether rather than simply limit their use in public; and their rhetoric was focused on morality more than health. Like present-day reformers, they attempted to use the power of government to institutionalize their objections to cigarettes; to a limited degree, they succeeded.

The early activists had the advantage of challenging a product that was just beginning to establish a foothold in American culture. Their successors had to confront a product that had gained wide acceptance. However, medical science has handed today's reformers potent new weapons, including the argument that secondhand smoke is dangerous to the health of nonsmokers. Even many smokers consider the act of lighting a cigarette in public—once considered a social act—to be antisocial.



Bremer, L. Tobacco, Insanity and Nervousness. St. Louis, Mo.: Nixon-Jones Printing Co., 1892.

Ford, Henry. The Case Against the Little White Slaver. Detroit, Mich.: Author, 1914.

Proctor, Robert N. The Nazi War on Cancer. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Strong, Josiah. Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis. New York: Baker & Taylor for the American Home Missionary Society, 1885.

Tate, Cassandra. Cigarette Wars: The Triumph of "The Little White Slaver." New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Warfield, Frances. "Lost Cause: A Portrait of Lucy Page Gaston." Outlook and Independent, 12 February 1930.

opium an addictive narcotic drug produced from poppies. Derivatives include heroin, morphine, and codeine.

sidestream smoke the smoke that rises from a burning cigarette.

epidemiological pertaining to epidemiology, that is, to seeking the causes of disease.