Tobacco Control in 1917

© 1999, Lauren A. Colby. Version 2.3

Tobacco Control in 1917

It is generally supposed that the modern anti-smoking movement has its basis in some sort of "scientific" research, showing that smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, etc. Anti-tobacco crusaders such as John Banzaf and Joe Califano perpetuate this belief when they appear on television, talking about "what we know now, that we didn't know then".

The truth is, of course, that there have never been any rigorous scientific studies showing that smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease or any other significant disease. These dubious notions are, however, nothing new. 80 years ago, in 1917, the nation was going through one of its periodic bouts of anti-tobacco madness. Then, as now, the focus was on children, but in 1917, "children" were referred to as "boys". Then, as now, medical doctors were beginning to threaten smokers with dire consequences, including, but not limited to, blindness, tuberculosis, and "tobacco heart". Then, as now, surgeons were beginning to ask patients whether they smoked as a part of the preparation for surgery, and insurance companies were asking prospective clients whether they smoked. Ten years later, the madness had passed and the country was happily smoking again. Perhaps, the same will be true in 2007.

Recently, I came into possession of a 1917 issue of a magazine, "The Instructor", published by two ladies in Washington, D.C. The August 28, 1917 issue is billed as "the annual anti-tobacco issue". On the cover, there is a full page photograph of President Woodrow Wilson, bearing the caption, "Woodrow Wilson - a National Example - the President Does Not Smoke". Less than a year after this issue of the Instructor was published, Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke, and his wife ran the government from that time forward. The authors of the Instructor, of course, did not know that the clean living Wilson was about to suffer such a fate; otherwise, they might not have used him as their example.

Whatever the case, smokers and anti-smokers alike may enjoy the articles and cartoons from the 1917 Instructor. I have, therefore, had the delicate original color copied and reduced to letter size. Of the original 16 pages, I've scanned six. Clicking on any excerpt should bring up a copy that prints an 8 ½ by 11 inch page, duplicating the original. The excerpts are pretty much self explanatory except for excerpt 6, which is the back page of the magazine and did not reproduce too well. Basically it depicts a little Filipino boy smoking what appears to be a cigarette, and a group of Filipino women with giant cigars stuffed into their mouths. The barely readable caption says that the women "sell the best of their lives" to support their tobacco habit.

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