I turned 13 in 1963 – a teenager at last. It was time to be rebellious, or at least a little adventuresome.
My parents and my friends’ parents smoked cigarettes, and I watched aunts and uncles smoking at family gatherings.
Smoking was obviously an adult thing to do. They smoked in restaurants, in grocery stores, in movie theaters – just about everywhere. Commercials on TV and ads in newspapers and magazines made it look very attractive and sophisticated. Even doctors smoked!
At 13, I was on my way to adulthood, so I had to choose whether to join friends in having a first cigarette.
I chose not to.
I will admit that I inhaled cigarette smoke a couple of times, but I was never really serious about getting started. (As an 18 year old college student in 1968, I definitely inhaled the other kind of cigarettes – but that’s another story).
When I think about it now, there were at least three reasons I decided not to smoke.
First, around that time, my Grandma Coyle told me that she would kill me if I ever smoked. I loved her, but she was a tough lady from the hills of Kentucky who could be a little scary.
Second, the Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health was released in 1964 and created some buzz about the possibility of lung cancer and heart disease as a result of smoking. Without today’s fast communication options, the buzz didn’t go far the first couple of years. But in 1966, the federal government mandated that cigarette packs have a warning label on them. I remember dad being pissed off about that since he was a staunch Republican who felt that “big government should stay out of my business.”
But the third reason is the one that really kept me from becoming a smoker. The habit was just too dirty! One of my jobs around the house was to clean the plates after dinner, plates that often contained remnants of my mom or dad’s cigarette butts. There were ashtrays in just about every room of the house that smelled bad, whether they were full of butts or empty.
There were always ashes on the floor, on the furniture and on the porch. I watched my dad pick pieces of tobacco out of his teeth. And speaking of teeth, both mom and dad’s teeth were yellowing over time, and they had an unpleasant smoker’s breath.
I remember that they both told me and my brother not to smoke, but neither of them made any attempt that I can recall to stop smoking themselves after the warnings. By that time, they were hooked and even smoked unfiltered Pall Malls “because they taste better” even though filtered cigarettes were available by the 60’s. (They later switched to filtered, reluctantly.)
When they got hooked in the 40’s as teenagers, smoking was touted in the media as good for you. They bought into it fully and had a hard time believing the 60’s “hype” about how bad it was, even though both of their fathers were developing health issues around that time. I remember my Grandpa Coyle being diagnosed with emphysema and having a difficult time climbing stairs. I can still see him stopping every few steps and hanging on to the banister. (Yes, that is the reason for my grandma’s death threat).
I remember calling my parents on the phone later in my life and listening to my dad coughing when he tried to talk to me. I told him I was concerned and that I wished he would stop smoking. “I have to die of something!” he’d say with a laugh. Well, he did. He died at age 61 of coronary heart disease. He would probably not have admitted it, but I’m convinced that smoking was the key culprit in his widowmaker heart attack. I lost him much too early.
And my mom? She quit smoking not long after my dad’s death and lived for 17 years without nicotine. But it was too late. She developed emphysema, which worsened over the last 10 years of her life and ultimately killed her at age 78. I asked her once what she most regretted in life and she said without any hesitation, “Smoking cigarettes all those years. It made my later life hell”.
According to an analysis published in 2014 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, (JAMA), eight million Americans avoided premature death as a result of the tobacco control efforts launched in 1964 and life expectancy over time increased by 30%. But it also estimated that 17.7 million Americans have died since 1964 from smoking-related causes and that 1 in 5 American adults still smoke today – that’s 43 million people. Source here.
I don’t know many people in my circle of friends or family who smoke these days, but I continue to see teenagers puffing on cigarettes or the newest fad, e-cigarettes.
I’m tempted to ask them why they don’t think it’s harmful, even with so much easily accessible information, warning labels and fewer ads.
But what I’d really like to know is if their parents smoked and if they had to clean up the dirty dishes!
PS. I was reminded about smoking when I enjoyed watching Good Night and Good Luck last week… a 2005 movie about Edward R. Murrow in the 1950’s and his impact on the Senator McCarthy hearings. Murrow had a cigarette in his hand throughout the entire movie – apparently he was never without one – and everyone else in the CBS newsroom was smoking too. It was jarring to be reminded about how prevalent it was back then!