Kicking the Habit

By John Evans

The current Anoka County Historical Society exhibit on the county’s post-war boom contains several magazines and advertisements, some of which depict a stereotype of the 1950s: a family participating in an activity (for example, back-yard barbecuing), including Dad with a pipe in his mouth. It was not an unreasonable image. In the fifties, according to various surveys, about half of American men smoked. There’s been a big change since then, and a watershed event was the January 1964 Surgeon General’s report, which linked tobacco usage with lung cancer. For years, many had suspected the connection—and some even believed--but the 1964 report was the first time it was documented so forcefully.

The Record, a north suburban newspaper of the time, published reader reaction to the report. The paper printed comments from nine men and women, eight of whom were smokers or former smokers. One had quit the day the report came out. Several expressed a desire to quit but most doubted they would. A drug store owner said cigarette sales had continued at about the same level, but pipe tobacco sales were up slightly. Opinions differed as to whether the Surgeon General was believable.  One man said the report had “a solid basis in fact and shouldn’t be treated lightly.” Another person didn’t put faith in reports, saying that “a person would be quite old and ready to die anyway by the time smoking would affect them.”

On a different page, an editorial writer debated whether a law should prohibit tobacco sales to minors, or whether control of youth smoking should be left to parents. Minnesota law at the time banned anyone under 21 from smoking in public, but the rule was enforced sporadically, if at all. In 1963, some legislators had proposed eliminating the prohibition, arguing that an unenforced law encourages contempt for the law, but the proposal went nowhere.

I grew up in Virginia, a tobacco producing state, and if there were any restrictions on tobacco sales, I wasn’t aware of them. I remember going into the corner gas station with friends, and one of us would look at the other and say, “What kind did your mom want?” as if that fooled anyone. Even if the cashier felt it was a civic duty not to sell to children, cigarette machines were everywhere, and no one kept an eye on who was using them. We would take our purchase to tree houses or forts in the woods and hide them in waterproof bags along with our inappropriate magazines.

People smoked everywhere. In my home town people walked through department stores puffing away; when I went to college, students smoked in class.

A 1964 editorial in the Anoka Union, with tongue in cheek, predicted the advent of “a new era in Americana: Smokybition.” It prophesied that smokers would meet in hidden rooms, that government revenue would collapse from the loss of tobacco tax, and that unemployment would skyrocket. Bribery would flourish, corruption would rule, and gang wars would heat up, just as they had during alcohol prohibition.

The editorial writer said he once gave up cigarettes for 18 months and as a result, gained 20 pounds. I myself was slow to take the Surgeon General’s advice to heart, as I didn’t kick the habit until 1975.

It’s a different world today, 55 years later. No one would publish a picture with a pipe-smoking dad as part of the ideal family. The local and national prevalence of smoking is one thing that has changed for the better. Now, about those e-cigs...

This article originally ran in the Anoka County Herald.