Three or four years ago, I wrote a couple columns on the nature of addiction in all its manifestations, from caffeine to heroin. I’d like to examine this arena again from the more narrow perspective of only nicotine and tobacco.
At the outset let me set the record straight. Biased as I am against cigarettes, I’m surely not adopting a holier-than-thou attitude because I smoked more than a pack a day for the better part of 30 years. Having thus cleared the air, so to speak, I feel more at liberty to explore the stinking subject.
Right from the get-go, there are a number of attributes about cigarettes that would seem to work against anyone being seduced by them. Every smoker – and also anyone who has inhaled a cigarette or two before giving them up – can vividly recall how incredibly harsh and painful the first few drags were. (Reason enough not to start.) Furthermore, smokers smell so bad, both their clothing and their breath, that a nonsmoker comes close to upchucking every time he or she talks to a smoker, let along tries to kiss one. On top of everything else, today everyone knows smoke is a carcinogenic. (It seems to me people intuitively knew smoking was unhealthy long before the Surgeon General’s report.)
And yet, despite the harsh introduction, the putrid stink and the cancer, people still force themselves to suck those damned things until they’re unequivocally hooked. How do you account for such nonsense?
Well, in part it was because smoking, at least in the rather distant past, had a glamorous and sexy image. And how could something so devastatingly harmful and unattractive be dressed up to look so sensuous? To a large degree, that was due to the tremendous power and money of Big Tobacco and some of the most brilliant minds and artists in Madison Avenue advertising agencies. Owing to the influence of these two happy sharks, in the 1950s anchorman John Cameron Swayze of “The Camel News Caravan” couldn’t appear on TV without a burning cigarette. The same was true of legendary news reporter Edward R. Murrow. From the 1930s well into the 1970s, superstars like Humphrey Bogart and Dean Martin couldn’t appear in a film or TV show unless they were smoking. Popular songs praised tobacco as did many, clever TV jingles.
Since cancer deaths cost Big Tobacco 6,000 customers a day, many new smokers were needed to keep profits up. So BT gave away free cigarettes to service personnel and college students. You had to get teenagers – the younger, the better – because youth was more easily hooked.
And make no mistake, tobacco executives knew nicotine was addictive, even though they testified under oath that they didn’t know. They have since been convicted of perjury.
In the last few decades, the number of American smokers has dropped like a stone. In the late 1950s, nearly half the U.S. population smoked, but today less than 21 percent do. If this trend continues, the ashtray may someday become a collectable antique, as passe as the spittoon.
Why the change? Because Big Tobacco has been stripped of much of its power and advertising clout, so the glamorous image cigarettes once had has faded.
Next week I want to pursue this subject further, but not in the realm of tobacco. Instead, I want to examine the American diet, addiction and the influence of “Big Food.”