Mister Boomer spied an endangered species this past week. This scene was something that we commonly saw in our Boomer Years, but now sightings are rare. Heading to work one day, Mister B saw a woman in a dress, by all appearances herself heading to work. What was unusual about her was she that was very pregnant — and smoking a cigarette.
World War II had secured a steady stream of nicotine-addicted GIs for the tobacco companies. On returning home, many of their soon-to-be-wives picked up the habit — if they hadn’t already during the war. Yet all was not perfect for Big Tobacco.
By the early 1940s there were rumblings among the medical community about the potential harm that could be done to the human body by smoking. Further, these science-minded individuals knew that whatever the pregnant mother ingested was going to find its way into the baby’s bloodstream. Big Tobacco was not going to take this information lightly.
The companies reacted forcefully, with counter ad campaigns, and by 1954 they were funding “scientific” studies of their own, intended to show that smoking had no effect on mother or baby. Camel cigarettes ran a series of ads promoting their product as “the brand most doctors choose.” Philip Morris published ads quoting their own studies with a drawing of a mother and her child, flanked by the headline of, “Mother and Baby Are Doing Fine.” Still, resistance was building with both consumers and doctors.
The U.S. government stepped into the fray and in January of 1964, the Surgeon General released the results of the very first government study on smoking and health. The study concluded that smoking while pregnant increased the risk of premature birth, birth defects, lower birth weight and ectopic pregnancies, where the egg grows outside of the uterus — and, oh yes, risk to the mother of heart disease, stroke, gum disease and cancer. The study stated that as the mother took smoke into her lungs, nicotine, carbon monoxide and tar passed through the placenta and umbilical cord into the baby’s bloodstream.
Congress attempted to establish warning labels on packaging, but Big Tobacco fought back, getting key Congressmen to agree that the wording of the proposed labeling was too harsh. In 1965, Congress passed a modified version of their original warning label with the Federal Cigarette Advertising Act. This was followed by more restrictive wording in advertising and packaging with the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act of 1969, which also banned cigarette advertising on television and radio.
Mister Boomer’s mother, and most of the mothers of his friends, smoked while pregnant. “It hasn’t hurt me yet,” was the phrase his mom often spoke when, in later years, Mister B and his siblings tried to get her to quit. Boomer mothers could be heard from coast to coast saying how they smoked (and drank, but that is a story for another time) while they were pregnant, and we boomers turned out OK. We were living proof that nothing bad happened. They were addicted, but times were changing and attitudes with them.
In 1973 Congress passed the most restrictive labeling to that date, requiring wording on each pack that said cigarettes contain “toxic substances.” Congress would continue to modify labeling into the 1980s and beyond.
As he has stated before, Mister Boomer always hated smoking (read: Boomers First Accepted Smoking, Then They Rejected It). Maybe his exposure to the toxic substances in the womb turned him away from the habit throughout his life, but his brother and sister were also crusaders in their fight to get their parents to quit. They finally did in the 1980s, when Brother Boomer had his first child, followed by another. The grandparents were not allowed to smoke in his house or near the grandkids. After a couple of years of smoking outside, they relented and gave it up.
Did your mother smoke while she was pregnant with you, boomers?