Boomers First Accepted Smoking, Then They Rejected It

The association between smoking and the Americas predates the founding of the Jamestown Colony. The Mayans grew tobacco for centuries in Mexico before the New World was colonized by Europeans, and in the U.S. mainland, Native Americans did the same.

When the Jamestown Colony was established in 1607, tobacco became its first cash crop. The colonists attempted to export tobacco to England, but discovered that the variety grown by Native Americans did not appeal to British tastes. As a result, tobacco plants were imported from Bermuda in 1610 and successfully planted in Virginia. Thus the tobacco market in the U.S. got its start.

At that period in history, smoking was an occasional occurrence. Historical data suggests that people — mainly men — may not have even used tobacco once a day. More chewed tobacco than smoked, but those who did smoked pipes. Since tobacco was imported, the whole concept of smoking was pretty much the domain of the merchant and upper classes.

Near the end of the Civil War, an enterprising American invented cigarette rolling papers, beginning the slow decline of pipe smoking. The popularization of cigarette smoking can trace its roots back to 1881, when James Bonsack invented a machine that could roll 100,000 cigarettes a day. With the expansion of the railroads, packaged cigarettes could make their way across the country.

Still, smoking didn’t pick up speed until World War I. In a deal with the government, tobacco companies provided free cigarettes for the troops. Many returning soldiers had picked up the habit from what the government felt was a way for soldiers to remain calm and relieve boredom. The same partnership took place during World War II — only now with many millions more men involved, the tobacco companies gained an advantage they would hold for the next three decades. Returning soldiers were hooked on the habit, bringing smoking to its highest level in U.S. history. These are the men and women who became the parents of the Boomer Generation. Throughout the 1940s and into the ’50s, smoking was portrayed as synonymous with cool in movies and ads both in magazines and on TV.

In 1964, at the very end of the Boomer Generation years, the U.S. Surgeon General wrote about the dangers of smoking. Congress acted on his report in 1965, passing the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act. For the first time, cigarette manufacturers were required to place warning labels on their packages that read: “Cigarettes may be hazardous to your health.”

It was during this period of mixed messages that boomers grew. Smoking was a part of daily life at that time. People smoked in their homes, while at work, in retail stores or restaurants. Jackie Gleason, Dean Martin, Jack Paar and later, Johnny Carson, all smoked on their TV shows. Cigarette companies were the sponsors of all types of family programs, from variety shows to The Flintstones. Is it any wonder that many boomers associated the act with a level of adult coolness that pressured them into trying smoking at an early age?

Mister Boomer was always on the side of the anti-smokers. More than likely this came about because his parents were both heavy smokers. His brother and sister also hated their home situation. Both parents used the last embers of a cigarette to light the next one — they were chain smokers. There wasn’t a time when one or both of them didn’t either have a cigarette in their hands or sitting in an ashtray. There were ashtrays in every room of the house. You couldn’t escape it in the family car, either. Wherever they went, there was the stench of cigarette smoke. Mister B remembers, as a young teen, being tasked to wash the walls in his and Brother Boomer’s bedroom in preparation for new paint. Watching a layer of brown slide down the wall as the boys scrubbed was deeply disturbing. Nonetheless, the smoking ritual, mess left behind and, most of all, the smell, were more than enough to make smoking an unattractive notion to Mister B.

As young kids Mister B and his siblings tried to dissuade their parents from smoking. Brother Boomer went so far as to take two or three cigarettes from any pack laying around the house, and threw them away. In their youthful exuberance, less cigarettes meant less smoking. They didn’t realize that their parents would just buy more. When it came time to buy more, Mister B’s mom would think nothing of dispatching Mister B or his sister to a neighborhood store, where it was not unusual to see children under the age of ten purchasing cigarettes for their parents. Mister B didn’t even need money, since the store ran a monthly tab.

Mister Boomer’s parents were the product of the tobacco companies’ target marketing. Both chose top brands to smoke: Chesterfield and Lucky Strikes for Mister B’s dad, L&M for his mom.

By the 1970s the oldest boomers were adults, while the earliest boomers were coming of age. While the allure of smoking grabbed ahold of many, there were chinks in the armor as many stayed away from the product. Cigarette ads were banned from TV and radio. For the first time, cigarette smoking was actively being discouraged. This prompted some states to adopt smoking and non-smoking sections in restaurants.

The ultimate turning point may have been the mid ’80s. Boomers were parents themselves, and public opinion on smoking was much different than when they were young, due to the large amount of negative information that began to appear in the press. In 1984 Congress acted again by enacting Public Law 98-474: The Comprehensive Smoking Education Act. This law required stricter warning labels in the form of four different messages that had to rotate every three months in their manufacturing process.

After that point, city, state and federal government agencies began to restrict smoking. It was banned from many public buildings, taxes were increased to encourage people to quit, and by 1990, smoking was not allowed on airplanes.

It was always a mystery to Mister B why someone would want something burning to hang directly beneath their nose. Today’s offices are, for the most part, smoke-free. When a co-worker so much as burns popcorn in the office microwave, the complaints are long and loud. Yet boomers grew up — long before there was burnt popcorn in a microwave — in an atmosphere where smoking was fostered in every aspect of daily life, including at the office. Perhaps it was this overexposure, coupled with overwhelming scientific data, that has contributed to the decline of smoking among members of the Boomer Generation and their offspring. Mister B echoes the phrase boomers used to hear in the early days, “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”

What part did smoking play in your home growing up, boomers?