It’s a different world in the era of the non-smoker
Published: May 28, 2019
By: Greg Carannante
Remember when people smoked? When I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, cigarette smoke was an everyday, in-your-face presence — in your eyes, in your hair, in the taste of a kiss.
For decades before that, lighting up a cigarette was as mainstream, as innocuous, as putting a piece of gum in your mouth — or so it was thought. Smokers carried a pack of cigarettes with them then almost as religiously as people carry cell phones today. Cigarette vending machines were commonplace. Ashtrays were everywhere. Matchbooks were an industry. People smoked in restaurants, theaters, grocery stores, airplanes — you name it. If things got the least bit stressful, a long drag off a cigarette was the go-to antidote. Smoking was society’s sanctioned drug addiction.
And more than that, it was considered cool. Teenagers were universally peer-pressured into taking that first drag. There was a romance, a glamour, to the act of smoking, even before it was considered dangerous. It was even promoted as being outdoorsy — remember the Marlboro Man? And as a conversation-starter, it was invaluable: “Hey, can I bum one of those?” or “Excuse me, do you have a light?”
And if a match was struck, so to speak, you know what was lighted immediately after you-know-what happened.
Today, one of the few occasions you might be reminded of what it was like back then is having smoke blown in your face when you are dining out — literally outside, that is. Restaurants, smoking sections and all, were among Florida’s indoor establishments and workplaces turned into smoke-free zones in 2003. Despite the startling fact that 12 states still don’t impose such restrictions, smoking is even more of an anathema in 2019 than it was a fact of life half a century ago.
I was reminded of those days when smoke got in your eyes while recently watching Green Book, this year’s Best Picture Oscar-winner. Hollywood seems to be one of smoking’s last domains, where many characters — in period pieces or not — incessantly light cigarette after cigarette as if the health warnings never existed. With its chain-smoking, real-life protagonist, Green Book is a prime example. Though it takes place in 1962 — three years before “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous To Your Health” was required reading on every pack — it’s nonetheless astonishing to watch the guy insouciantly take drags off his butt in between bites of his dinner.
Soon after I watched the movie, and mere minutes after deciding I’d write this column, CBS Sunday Morning did a piece on another inveterate smoker: Rod Serling, creator and host of TV’s The Twilight Zone. It was the sort of near-eerie coincidence that Serling might have liked, because, if you recall, he famously always held a cigarette in his hand while introducing each bizarro episode of the anthology series. In the profile, he was described as having a four-pack-a-day habit. Surely 80 cigarettes a day was not typical, but it does expose the choke-hold nicotine had on some people. Serling’s death at age 50 came as no surprise.
These men brought back memories of my father, who thankfully didn’t smoke nearly as much as they but who would light up first thing in the morning, every morning. The fact that my mother didn’t smoke, however, wasn’t enough to keep me from starting the habit when I went away to college. People used to be described by how much they smoked, and I quickly became a pack-a-day man before becoming a trying-to-quit smoker. After 10 years, I was finally able to stop when I met the woman who’d become my wife. Smoking was already somewhat taboo in the mid-’70s and, and we vowed to go cold-turkey together. It took love to get me to quit for good.
I had become part of a trend that’s seen the percentage of American adult smokers drop from an estimated 42 percent in the ’60s to its lowest point of 14 percent in 2017. This is largely thanks to a public anti-smoking campaign that has got to be one of the greatest exercises in mass mind control ever experienced in our country.
Picking up steam near the turn of the century, it was stoked by a ban on cigarette advertising, spiking taxation on cigarettes and, of course, the inescapable sounding of cancer alarms, even from second-hand smoke. Eventually, the status of smokers transformed from respectable citizens into social outcasts of sorts, banished to the outdoors for their huddled breaks and forced to search out places where lighting up was not prohibited — ultimately ushering in today’s Era of the Non-Smoker.
That’s an impressive evolution, for sure, but as the umpteen ads for patches, gums and lozenges make clear, it’s not complete. Smoking still accounts for about 1 in 5 deaths in this country, and those figures don’t factor in people under 18. And that age group is an unsettling segment of the newest trend in smoking: e-cigarettes.
Among kids, e-cigarette use, or vaping, has skyrocketed. In 2011, 1.5 percent of high-school students and 0.6 percent of middle-school students used e-cigarettes, according to The National Youth Tobacco Survey. By 2017, those figures had shot up to 11.7 percent and 3.3 percent, respectively. And in just the last two years, the number of those who said they’d used a tobacco product within the previous 30 days rose by 38.3 percent, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Of course, vaping is said to be much less harmful to health than inhaling tobacco, but nicotine is still the common addictive element. E-cigarette use is also drawing increased scrutiny from lawmakers for possible toxin contamination and potential health hazards such as seizures and heart attacks. The FDA recently announced new restrictions on the sale of flavored e-cigarettes, whose marketing is particularly enticing to youngsters.
And then — holy smokes! — there’s marijuana. The not-so-new trend of legalization is becoming more and more troubling to parents and grandparents as it spreads across the land. Recreational pot use is now permitted in 10 states. Medical marijuana is legal in 33 — Florida became one of them this year. And the way things are going, legalized just-for-fun pot-smoking may not be very far behind.
All of which means, that, yes, Americans aren’t hooked on cigarettes like they were 50 years ago. But though we may be smoking less, we soon may be inhaling more.