Boomer Mothers Smoked While Pregnant

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?

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?