1/30/2008

The Irony of Smoking

1942 advertisement for Camel cigarettes
I have a mostly joking theory that we won World War II because we had better cigarettes than the Axis. Stay with me here and I’ll explain that. But first, some background.

I grew up in North Carolina in the 1950s and ‘60s. By the time I was a teenager, the appalling sins of the tobacco companies and the serious health threats caused by smoking were just starting to come to light. So during my formative years I was steeped in a pro-tobacco culture before the anti-smoking movement really got underway.

When I was a kid, I could tell you the brand names of all the cigarettes that were made in North Carolina as well as the companies that produced them and the cities where they were manufactured.

I knew that tobacco had been a dominant part of the state’s economy since Reconstruction, and was a major factor in the growth of the state’s largest cities – especially Durham and Winston-Salem, which basically were built from the ground up by tobacco. Tobacco also put new shoes on kids’ feet and food on families’ tables. It helped pay for schools, hospitals, county courthouses, some outstanding universities and a state road system that is one of the nation’s best.

I smoked for about 15 years. I especially enjoyed it when I went through Army basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, when I was 23. When we were out in the field, the drill sergeants would give us a 10-minute break every hour or so. During that break, I could go off by myself, sit down against a pine tree, take off that heavy steel helmet, lay my M-16 rifle across my lap, and light up a cigarette. I could kick my mind into neutral, stare into the woods, and watch the smoke slowly dissipate when I exhaled.


The author during Army basic training, 1973
That smoke break gave me a few idle moments alone. No screaming drill sergeants. No lugging a rifle and sweating beneath a field pack and that damned helmet. It was a small island of tranquility in the swirling sea of tedious aggravation and exertion that is Army basic training.

I was never a heavy smoker. A pack of 20 cigarettes usually lasted me several days. I quit smoking in 1982 after a bout with Rocky Mountain spotted fever. I didn’t know I could be that ill and still be alive when it was all over. I was sick in bed for about two weeks, and it was a month before I started really getting back on my feet. During that time, the last thing I wanted was a cigarette. So when I finally did recover, I decided that since I’d been so long without smoking, I might as well quit.

So I did. No nicotine patches, no tapering off, no belief that I was fighting an addiction, no backsliding. I just quit. I got a little antsy a few times during the first month, but after that it became easier.

I don’t know how many people were smoking when I quit, but I do know that not nearly as many people smoke today as they did even 25 years ago, when the anti-smoking movement was becoming embedded in American popular culture. As my wife – a lifelong non-smoker – pointed out, the pleasure that can come from smoking is no longer common knowledge among most people.

Today, smokers exist at the fringes of American society. You see them huddled outside buildings grabbing a quick smoke, looking around guiltily as they puff away. They are social lepers and considered fair game for the contempt of non-smokers. And some non-smokers do seem to enjoy the self-righteous satisfaction that they get from heaping scorn upon smokers.

I’ve never cared much for self-righteousness, and so I’ve found that being in the presence of zealous anti-smokers is often more unpleasant than being in the presence of someone who’s smoking. They say second-hand smoke is bad for you, but I think sanctimoniousness also gives off some kind of toxin.


 Churchill and FDR, 1942 editorial cartoon
And recalling the moments of relaxation and contemplation during those smoke breaks in Army basic training, I’m wondering if, in the old days, tobacco didn’t provide some kind of subtle social lubricant and mild tranquilizer that helped us get through life’s daily aggravations and frustrations. How many outbursts of anger were avoided because someone walked away from a tense moment and had a smoke? How many friendships were started because someone asked a stranger for a light? And how many knotty problems were solved during a smoke break? Sherlock Holmes smoked, and sometimes he calculated the difficulty of a problem by the number of pipes he'd smoke while pondering a solution.

Of course, lung cancer, heart disease and emphysema are a steep price to pay for a few moments of relaxation, and the sins of the tobacco companies' marketing campaigns before the 1960s were truly egregious. Still, life is full of ironies and contradictions. We’re undoubtedly healthier for not smoking, and Big Tobacco truly deserved severe punishment. But sometimes I think the world -- or at least the United States -- has become a bitchier place without tobacco.


And speaking of ironies, that brings me back to that opening comment about World War II. The ad at the top of this entry is from January 1942, America’s darkest days of the war. The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor only a few weeks earlier and were rampaging through the Pacific. Adolph Hitler had conquered most of Europe and seemed on the verge of taking Great Britain.

America's fighting men were calming their nerves and focusing their efforts by lighting up Camels and Lucky Strikes as they fought fascism all around the world.

Hitler and the Nazis were ardently opposed to smoking, and smoking was banned in all Nazi office buildings. Hitler’s fascist partner, Benito Mussolini, didn’t like smoking or smokers either.

By contrast, Allied leaders were usually seen using tobacco in some form. Franklin Roosevelt kept a Lucky Strike burning in his cigarette holder despite his doctor’s repeated warnings against smoking. Winston Churchill preferred Romeo y Julieta cigars, and may have smoked as many as 250,000 during his lifetime. And Joseph Stalin packed his cherry root pipe with cigarette tobacco before he clamped it between his teeth and lit it.

So my point is sort of like that old joke about the guy sitting in New York's Central Park, banging two sticks together to keep the tigers away. On the one hand, his claim that he’s keeping tigers away is nuts. On the other hand, well, there certainly are no tigers in Central Park.

So who’s to say that the strategies and tactics that won World War II didn’t come from the Allies’ planning sessions in smoke-filled rooms, where tensions were eased and focus was sharpened because the participants were smoking? And how many military and political geniuses who smoked and who could have caused enormous problems for the Allies were shunned by Hitler, Mussolini, and their anti-smoking zealots?

Yes, I know, it’s a screwy theory. But then, for whatever it's worth, the smokers won the war, and the anti-smokers lost.

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