Tobacco is Ingrained in our Culture

The history of tobacco use in our country is long and complex. Historically, tobacco played (and still plays) a sacred role among American Indian tribes, for whom the plant is a source of spiritual guidance. Within 60 years of arriving in North America, European settlers recognized the commercial viability of tobacco and were exporting it back across the Atlantic. The slave trade was built on plantation owners’ desire for cheap labor to work in their tobacco fields. Tobacco is ingrained so deeply in American history that the plant’s leaves are carved into the columns of the U.S. Capitol. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cigarettes were being massproduced, and tobacco companies embarked on unprecedented marketing campaigns to promote them, employing tactics like advertising on baseball trading cards. And, indeed, the tobacco industry’s greatest success in the past century has been to position smoking as an integral part of American culture, something as American as baseball. For the past 100 years, the tobacco industry has had a hand in defining the events and social changes of every era.

Free cigarettes distributed to soldiers during wars.

During World Wars I and II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, free cigarettes—often donated by the tobacco companies in a display of “patriotism”—were a part of combat rations and hooked generations of soldiers. The U.S. Department of Defense stopped the practice in 1986, but the tobacco industry has continued fighting to maintain its ties to the military. In 2000, the Department of Defense ordered that tobacco prices on military bases be kept at least 5 percent cheaper than those at the closest retail store, and as recently as 2007, research found that tobacco lobbyists were pressuring lawmakers to keep tobacco prices in military stores as low as possible.

And throughout conflicts in the 1990s and 2000s, soldiers stationed in the Middle East continued to receive free tobacco products from companies like Philip Morris, Brown & Williamson and Swisher International.

Smoking as a symbol of women’s liberation and independence.

Before the 1920s, cigarette smoking by women was rare. But with new, rebellious social attitudes in the Roaring Twenties, smoking was pitched as a way for women to express expectations of independence and equality. The American Tobacco Company even organized a women’s rights group to march in a New York parade in 1929, instructing marchers to light up “Torches of Freedom”—Lucky Strike cigarettes—at the most dramatic moment. As early as the 1930s, cigarettes were also marketed as tools for women to stay thin and were advertised with such slogans as “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet.”

The popularity of cigarettes continued to grow for women (and men) during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, despite increasing concerns about health risks. By the mid-1960s, the second wave of the feminist movement had arrived, and tobacco companies saw the opportunity to develop a cigarette especially for women. The most popular cigarette to emerge at this time was Virginia Slims, again marketed with the same themes: smoking helps control weight, smoking is fashionable, smoking is a symbol of independence. The Virginia Slims slogan, “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby,” has become legendary.

Celebrity endorsers of brands to represent a sought-after appearance and lifestyle.

In the 1930s and 1940s, when movie studios controlled their stars, tobacco companies paid Hollywood A-listers big money to endorse certain brands of cigarettes. In exchange for the endorsements, movie studio heads received nationwide print and radio ads in lucrative “crossover” deals. In all, almost 200 of the most popular actors—including Lucille Ball, Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable— took part in cigarette endorsements in those two decades. And celebrities didn’t have to be of flesh and blood to get endorsement deals; even Santa Claus was drafted as a cigarette pitchman.

Marlboro Man as a symbol of rugged independence.

Marlboro actually started as a premium cigarette for women, but the brand was never able to take hold. Not, at least, until Philip Morris re-imagined the brand as one appealing to men.

The Marlboro Man image was crafted to present American men, who increasingly viewed themselves as overly domesticated, with fantasy reflections of themselves as free spirits, cowboys and pioneers.

Tobacco products placed in movies, television shows and video games.

Smoking has always figured in motion pictures, but it isn’t simply a case of art imitating life. By the 1940s, tobacco companies were paying to have their products placed in films, knowing that a cigarette in the hands of movie stars like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall would be more influential than advertisements could be.

Television soon became another medium for cigarette promotions through tobacco companies’ sponsorship of popular programs. When Congress banned cigarette advertising from television in the early 1970s, cigarettes continued to turn up on TV in the hands of actors. Even after restrictions further tightened on tobacco marketing to kids, smoking is still present in a huge volume of movies aimed at them, and cigarettes are even featured in popular video games.


In 2008, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a report on tobacco’s global impact. The report noted that during the 20th century, 100 million people worldwide died as a direct result of smoking, and warned that unless current trends could be reversed, the death toll for the 21st century would be higher than one billion. The report identified the tobacco industry’s outreach into the developing world as a major cause for the projected increase, predicting that by 2030, more than 8 million people will die annually from tobacco use, with 80 percent of deaths occurring in poorer countries.

But the report also offered hope for the future. In an introduction, WHO’s Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan wrote that “We hold in our hands the solution to the global tobacco epidemic,” and the report identifies six areas that are key to reducing the harms of tobacco around the world. They are:

• Banning tobacco advertising;
• Increasing tobacco prices;
• Implementing policies to protect people from secondhand smoke;
• Educating people about tobacco’s harm;
• Providing access to cessation services; and
• Conducting ongoing research on tobacco use.

The report called on world governments to take action to prevent this escalation, noting that while more than $200 billion in tobacco taxes are collected by countries every year, less than one fifth of 1 percent of this money is used for tobacco control purposes.


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