I grew up when smoking was still cool, and when I became an adult myself non-smokers were in the minority. We were not ignorant of its dangers. In fact, when I started smoking cigarettes in 1966, the first warnings were being introduced on the packs. They were not especially conspicuous, and the advice was “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health.” I only needed a few months to know, with the coughing, and phlegm, that it wasn’t healthy for my lungs.It 1970, the caution was now a dire warning that proclaimed: “The Surgeon General Has Determined That Cigarette Smoking Is Dangerous to Your Health. “May” had become a more urgent “Is” and the Surgeon General, for the record, was Jesse Leonard Steinfeld, who had succeeded William H. Stewart in 1969. By that time, I was no longer a smoker, but the four years I did smoke between the ages of 18 and 22 included a year in Vietnam where I was smoking in the neighborhood of three packs a day.Since then people who smoke have become pariahs, with laws forbidding them to light up at their jobs and virtually every place frequented by the public. It is hard to believe that with the cost of a pack of cigarettes these days and how smokers are shunned that one out of every five adults still smokes. As a former smoker, I did not feel righteously superior toward those who continued to puff away, as other reformed smokers have, because I had been there myself.I learned firsthand years ago—something like 25—when, for reasons I still don’t understand, I started smoking again. Mostly it was bumming cigarettes from a number of friends who still smoked, but there were so many of them that I was probably smoking a half-dozen cigarettes a day. One day I went into a convenience store and bought a pack. That’s when it struck me that I was becoming addicted again, and the brief resurrection of my smoking habit came to a fortunate end.However, it was toward the end of my second courtship with smoking that I happened to be dining in an Italian restaurant not too far from here when you could still smoke in such places. I was with a large group of people, a number of whom were lighting up, and I was soon smoking along. Some fellow sitting behind me at a table with another group suddenly erupted into a diatribe about me being inconsiderate with my nasty habit, comparing me to a chimney, and how I was endangering his health and that of his family with my billowing smoke. I noted that people elsewhere in the restaurant were nodding in agreement. The smokers at my table conveniently ignored the outraged diner’s spiel, even though there had been a very uncomfortable few seconds of silence after he let off steam about my smoking.I mention this because, in the old days, some guy who carried on that way about smoking would have been regarded as a kook. It was clear to me the winds of public opinion had definitely shifted. I was embarrassed, not because the guy had denigrated me in a public place, but because I knew I was stupid for engaging in something hazardous to my health and possibly to people around me.I grew up watching TV commercials and reading magazine ads trumpeting the wonders of various brands of cigarettes. If you are under the age of 30, you may not even remember that they even advertised cigarettes. Not only did they advertise, but just about everyone who was cool in the movies and on television was smoking. We learned how to be cool like them, blowing smoke rings, exhaling through the nose and while we talked. Singers even smoked while they were belting out songs.Witness this description of Frank Sinatra, in an archived television appearance from the 1950’s as he sang one of his standards from a show themed “Music for Smokers Only.” This was not an attempt at satire, but underlining that it was cool to smoke and that smokers listened to the coolest music.Here’s how Old Blue Eyes did it, as described by columnist Bob Greene in a recent piece: “He held the cigarette between his first and second fingers, sometimes flicking the ash as percussive punctuation; at moments, he was absolutely encased in white smoke. Once he had to briefly turn his head to clear his throat, but then, cigarette aloft, he sang on.”Even rockers don’t smoke when performing, excluding mavericks like Keith Richards, who appears to be on the verge of croaking anyway. Most public performing arenas are smoke-free anyway.I grew up with jingles like: “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should;” “L&M: Just what the doctor ordered;” “I’d rather fight than switch;” “I’d walk a mile for a Camel,” and “You’re in Marlboro Country.” Everyone in those commercials was healthy and attractive, sort of like the pharmaceutical ads they run now, and it all seemed so harmless.In the thirties, forties and fifties, people were advised to smoke Camels “for digestion sake” and Old Gold pledged “not a cough in the carload.” Camel was not only denying it was unhealthy but was telling people in the 1940’s that smoking was good for you “More doctors smoke Camel than any other cigarette. This is no casual claim. It’s an actual fact.” Facts, as most of us have learned, do not necessarily represent the truth. Actresses and singers insisted certain brands soothed their throats, and Philip Morris claimed their brand essentially cured noses and throats irritated “due to smoking.” They even used children to advertise the benefits of cigarettes, with one ad from 1950 displaying these words above the picture of a baby: “Before you scold me, Mom… maybe you’d better light up a Marlboro.”You can bet it will get tougher and tougher for smokers, with even more serious warnings on the packaging coming in 2012. There are apparently no such concerns in China, which is supposedly home to one third of the smokers on the planet. Meanwhile, the goal in this country is to eradicate smoking, which is generally regarded as a slow form of suicide.Children being born in the coming decade will be left to wonder how their parents and grandparents could have been so stupid. It turns out we may have been victimized by the greatest marketing scam in history.
Wes Skillings is a Pennsylvania-based copywriter whose recent emergence into this field brings a freshness and vitality that will make the words on your website, newsletter, direct mail marketing or news release reach out and grab the customer base you are seeking.