The Surgeon General came very late

December 13, 1998|By Jill Jonnes | Jill Jonnes,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Cigarette Wars: The Triumph of the 'Little White Slaver,' " by Cassandra Tate. Oxford University Press. 240 pages. $29.95. We know from the late 19th-century term for cigarettes - coffin nails - that Americans have long viewed smoking tobacco with a jaundiced eye. But who guessed that in 1917, cigarettes sales were actually illegal in eight states, while another 22 states were considering outlawing smokes?

This largely forgotten history of America's first anti-smoking campaign is the subject of Cassandra Tate's charming but scholarly work, "The Cigarette Wars," a major contribution to understanding our love-hate relationship with tobacco. Tate, the daughter of a mother who loved to smoke and died of lung cancer, imbues her work with notable humanity and compassion.

In 1900 only 2 percent of American adults who used tobacco products smoked cigarettes. But then came James Duke, whose mechanized factories upped production of cheap, ready-made smokes dramatically. But the cigarettes - and those who smoked them, including many of the new immigrants - were seen as morally detrimental.

Thomas Edison refused to hire anyone who smoked cigarettes, as did Henry Ford, who assembled four volumes of anti-cigarette statements titled "The Case Against the Little White Slaver." Cigarette smoking was bad for the character, but health and productivity were issues, too.

Leading the anti-cigarette charge was Lucy Page Gaston, described by Tate as "a woman with a long, censorious face, thin of lip and prominent of nose, invariably dressed in somber clothing." Gaston founded the Anti-Cigarette League of America December 1899 and had all reason to feel her crusade was going well as cigarettes were outlawed in one state after another. Then came World War I.

In one fell swoop, cigarettes were transformed from "a manifestation of moral weakness into a jaunty emblem of freedom, democracy, and modernity." When the U.S. military sent American boys to Europe in 1917, it decided that smoking was the least damaging vice.

"Having been denied access to wine and women, the men were encouraged to comfort themselves with song and smoke. ... After all,] tobacco can calm the frightened, sedate the wounded, energize the weary, and distract the bored." And so, many of the very reform groups that had opposed cigarettes - like the YMCA and the Salvation Army - were soon handing out coffin nails free to the brave lads on the front.

Once the boys came back, manly men puffing away, modern women took up cigarettes, too. Long linked to loose women, cigarettes became emblems of sexiness and independence. The sight of women smoking briefly re-energized the anti-tobacco forces, but it was a losing battle, because cigarettes had become far too powerful as symbols for modernity.

By the 1930s, America's beloved President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was rarely without his cigarette and jaunty cigarette holder. And so, by the 1960s, when the true health costs of cigarettes began to emerge - 400,000 premature deaths each year - 42 out of every 100 American adults smoked.

A longtime journalist who did this work for her Ph.D., Tate writes beautifully and with wit, but brings a cogent analysis to bear. She concludes that "A cigarette is more than just a smoke: it is an important symbol, deeply entwined in much larger social issues."

Jill Jonnes' "Hepcats, Narcs, and Pipedreams," published by Scribners in 1996, is soon to be released as a paperback by Johns Hopkins University Press. She has a doctorate in American history and is historian and curator for the DEA museum, scheduled to open in Washington this year.

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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