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June 17, 2024

Meanderings 29

By Basil D.

The public image of the cigarette smoker has undergone a radical change in the last 20 years. Up until the early 80's, smoking was viewed as something "cool" to do. Cigarette ads from the 60's and 70's pictured healthy young people engaged in activities like mountain climbing, water skiing, power-boat racing and ball-room dancing. Most people in the ads were young: the men were muscular and athletic looking, the women were all skinny, elegant, and cool as a breezy spring morning. The ads practically screamed at you: Do you want to look like this? Do you want to hike through the Swiss Alps, surf on Hawaii's pristine coast-line, and look like a million-dollar underwear model? Then smoke our cigarettes, for God's sake! The only old person you ever saw smoking was the Marlborough Man, and with his leathery skin, flint-chip eyes and magnificently seamed face, he could have been anywhere from 30 to 60 years old. He looked as if he'd been cured like a ham in a hickory smokehouse. In other words, he looked strong and ageless -- the perfect image for selling cigarettes.

During this time, the world catered to the smoker. You could smoke anywhere in a restaurant, in any federal and state building, on the subway, and on buses. It was accepted everywhere, and if someone didn't like the smell of cigarette smoke -- well, tough stuff. Everywhere you went, gangs of happy smokers congregated, chatting amiably as smoke-clouds drifted around their heads. If you smoked, the world was your oyster.

Like all popular eras, the golden age of smoking came to an end. Massive advertising changed the public image of the smoker from the cool, in-crowd person to an outcaste -- someone too stupid to realize that they were killing themselves with their dangerous obsession. Suddenly, you couldn't smoke anywhere you wanted. Suddenly, your public smoking places became extremely limited. You couldn't smoke in a federal building. Smoking in restaurants was limited to very small, cramped areas away from the "good customers." People wouldn't let you fire up in their houses. The in-home ashtray became a novelty item. The number of smokers dropped dramatically.

Want to find the smokers these days? Drive around in the wintertime and look at the small cliques of people huddled miserably outside in the elements, collars turned up against the harsh winter wind. They huddle together not only for warmth, but for companionship: they are the last of a dying breed, the hold-outs, those who have persevered in spite of the government mandated assault against their beloved habit. At night, you can see their faces outside movie theatres and malls, grim in the glow of their cigarettes, as they drag harshly, their cigarettes describing arcs in the dark. These are the strong ones, the fearless ones, the ones for whom the threat of emphysyma and lung cancer are just that -- mere threats, things that happen to "other smokers."

There are some indications that smoking is on the rise among young people. It's always been seen as a deterrent to gaining weight, and many young women seem to smoke for this reason alone. Young men seem to smoke because they see it as "cool" once more, a type of rebellion against the mores of a society that would dictate everything they do. Yes, they might say, I know it's dangerous, but it's my life to waste if I want.

Such a mind set can still be profitable -- that is, to the tobacco industry, which has been in a slump for a couple of decades now, and to the medical profession, which makes a pile of money off the illnesses spawned by tobacco addictions. There are some losers however: smokers themselves, who lose a ton of money fueling an expensive addiction, and society, which in the end pays for much of the medical care for these people.

In the meantime, enjoy your nicotine, Dear Smokers. Jet ski on the weekends, climb mountains during the summer, practice your sky diving, all the while puffing away on that cig hanging out of the corner of your mouth. You might want to make sure your health (and life) insurance is paid up, because you'll need it. The popular Marlborough Man of the sixties and seventies, Wayne McLaren, needed his. After all, he died of lung cancer at the age of 51.

Article © Basil D.. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-08-08
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