November 20, 2011

Up in Smoke

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When I was a child, I inherited from my grandparents a large collection of Little Golden Books, the inexpensive, brightly-colored children’s book series that includes such classics as The Poky Little Puppy and The Little Red Hen. Little Golden Books have been in print since 1942, and I’m fairly certain that these copies were rather old. I certainly didn’t help their collectors’ value by asking my mother to read them to me constantly, until the binding unraveled and the pages started to fall out.

One of my favorites was called The Taxi That Hurried. First published in 1946, it chronicles the journey of a posh-looking mother and her son, who, rushing to catch a train, are aided by a burly taxi driver with a friendly disposition and a complete disregard for traffic laws. Looking back on it now, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about The Taxi That Hurried (although my endless refrains of “We got stuck behind a truck! And then a cop made us stop!” must have driven my parents up the wall). There is, however, one noteworthy thing about the book’s taxi driver: He smokes.In a modern children’s book it would be practically unthinkable for a character to smoke. Yet in The Taxi That Hurried, the cigarette dangling out of the taxi driver’s mouth was just another little embellishment added by the illustrator. And in 1946, it was certainly a realistic detail; according to Gallup, in the 1940s 43 percent of Americans smoked, as opposed to 24 percent in the 2000s. Smoking was mainstream. All the Hollywood stars smoked, the Flintstones advertised Lucky Strikes and the Marlboro Man was a symbol of American masculinity.Fast forward to now, and cigarettes have almost completely vanished from popular culture. It’s illegal for cigarette companies to advertise on television, and there are several organizations at work tracking the use of cigarettes in film and lobbying studios to decrease their presence. Indeed, in many films, having a character smoke serves a visual shorthand to identify them as a villain.And it’s not just in pop culture that this has happened. Smoking is banned in bars, restaurants and most public places. The “no smoking” sign in airplanes never shuts off. Smokers are confined to special smoking lounges and designated areas. Once a vice enjoyed by nearly half of America, smoking is now something that happens at the margins of society. Smoking has moved underground.How did this happen? Well, we found out that smoking was bad for you. And we found out in a very public way. Many of those 43 percent of Americans who smoked in the 1940s ended up with lung cancer in later years, and thanks to some very public class-action lawsuits, the tobacco companies stopped being able to misrepresent smoking’s health risks. And the government listened; a good portion of smoking’s decline in popularity can be attributed both to government regulations on where cigarettes can be smoked and advertised, anti-smoking PSAs and steep taxes imposed on cigarettes. As smoking became less and less accepted by society’s mainstream, it became easier to legislate against, thus perpetuating its decline.

It’s somewhat miraculous to think that something that was both a large part of American culture and a multi-million-dollar industry could be so delegitimized over the course of just a few decades. Was it government regulations that forced smoking to the margins, or was it a change in public opinion? In the 1940s, smoking was something that was a fact of life: Half the population smoked, from Humphrey Bogart to the lowliest cab driver, and anyone who didn’t like it just had to accept it. What happened as the health risks of smoking became more publicized is that the people who didn’t like smoking realized that they didn’t have to accept it — that just because it was part of mainstream culture didn’t mean that they had to put up with it.Is this a tyranny of the majority? Both sides would probably claim that the other was impinging on their rights, and that this is another manifestation of the endless battle between individual rights and the public good. It can be likened to Prohibition, in a way: A group of activists see a problem with society and decide to fix it, whether or not those involved want it to be fixed.The big difference between the current anti-smoking climate and Prohibition, of course, is that smoking is still legal; there are no Untouchables raiding illicit tobacco farms or cigarette speakeasies (breathe-easies?). And as such, tobacco’s new marginal status has had one positive side-effect for smokers. Since smoking has become less mainstream, the community of smokers has grown much more tight-knit, congregating 25 feet away from buildings and offering each other lights. Perhaps smoking was never fit to be part of the mainstream in the first place, but as something somewhat underground, it can, in its own way, bring people together.

Aidan Bonner is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at abonner@cornellsun.com. The Weather Report appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Aidan Bonner