Mugger: Thank Me For Smoking

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During the course of the day at my small office in north Baltimore, where six colleagues and I operate a new youth-oriented website—— there’s a lot of good-natured ribbing that takes place, often at the expense of yours truly. I’m the senior citizen of the bunch at 52; the person closest to middle age is 31, with the remaining employees under 25. About a month ago, for example, I was the object of much ridicule upon asking the office manager for help in working an iPod, a swell Christmas present from my 13-year-old son Booker. Eyes rolled as Claire pressed a button in about five seconds and sent me upstairs; I wasn’t really chastened, since this is a somewhat normal occurrence, whether it involves complex (for me) computer maneuvers or setting up message retrieval on the cell phone.

However, one day last week came a moment of supreme satisfaction, as our 23-year-old managing editor was staring at the fax machine for several minutes, trying to figure out how to make it work. “John,” I inquired, “are you just slow today or is there something more seriously wrong with your brain?” He didn’t particularly appreciate that remark and explained to this Boomer that he’d only sent three faxes in his life. I was astonished, at least initially, until realizing there was no reason why someone of his age, in just his second job after graduating from college, would be familiar with what was once a revolutionary gadget. When setting up New York Press in 1988, the fax machine was a wonder—remember how the pages would fade after several days?—and of course I’ve sent and received thousands of faxes over the years. The device is still used, of course, but it’s quickly going the route of the eight-track, seating at 800-capacity music venues and stock tables in daily newspapers.

Which brings me to the topic of tobacco, smoking, cigarette advertising and the days before it was considered mandatory courtesy to ask someone, “Do you mind if I smoke?” Just a decade or two from now, as tobacco addicts die off, the whole notion of commonplace smoking will make for nostalgic and often funny stories that grandparents will tell (probably unaware of repeating themselves) at family gatherings. It’s in the tradition of oral history handed down to succeeding generations: Some of the details spun out will be wrong, apocryphal or innocently burnished by the passage of time. However, what’s more disturbing to me, a longtime smoker, is that when such reminiscences are recorded in written essays—and thus recorded as gospel via the Internet—is that some authors are simply getting their facts wrong.

David Sedaris, born in 1956, recently published a typically entertaining piece on his own smoking history in The New Yorker, “Letting Go: Smoking and non-smoking,” and his fiddling with the truth (probably inadvertent, for he is over 50 years old) resulted in my immediate thought that none of his editors at the weekly ever fell prey to the now-reviled habit. The following is just one example of where Sedaris is off base: “[C]oolness, for most of us, had nothing to do with it. It’s popular to believe that every smoker was brainwashed, sucked in by product placement and subliminal print ads.” No doubt, New York anti-smoking activist Gene Borio, a pleasant enough fellow who used to bombard New York Press with letters to the editor in the golden days (at least on the revenue side for publishers) after a full-page cigarette advertisement was published, will disagree—and Gene, the war’s over: you won—but smoking had everything to do with “coolness.”

It wasn’t Ricky and Lucy Ricardo casually lighting up on I Love Lucy reruns that led me to start smoking at the age of 14; it was the far more compelling example of my fourth-oldest brother, in 1969, nonchalantly lighting up a Kool in our living room. He was the epitome of cool: long red hair, perfectly faded Lee jeans, a participant in student sit-ins and someone whom I believed had the best taste in music. So, it wasn’t much of a leap when I followed suit and began carrying a pack of unfiltered Kools (and later Newports and Alpines) in my BVD blue T-shirt pocket. This was before the stupid Joe Camel controversy, but advertising and product placement had absolutely nothing to do with my picking up the vice. Nor did peer pressure, even as I enjoyed (as did Sedaris) the outside smoking lounge at Huntington High School.

What’s worse, Sedaris gets key tobacco lore all wrong. He writes: “Kools and Newports were for black people and lower-class whites. Camels were for procrastinators, those who wrote bad poetry, and those who put off writing bad poetry [in fact, the pretentious bad poets actually favored Galouise cigs]. Merits were for sex addicts, Salems for alcoholics, and Mores for people who considered themselves to be outrageous but really wouldn’t.” I’ll give Sedaris credit on the Mores jab, but how in the world does he justify labeling Salems as the brand of choice for alcoholics? I’ve encountered, over the years, countless alcoholics and their preference in cigarettes was always varied and often indiscriminate. Perhaps this is a quibble, but if Sedaris is going to hand down to present and future readers a story about the lost culture of smoking, he shouldn’t be so promiscuous with the truth. Likewise, saying that “Merits were for sex addicts,” is nonsense, but many of his readers who’ve never touched a cigarette might believe him.

Another misconception in Sedaris’ essay is that “light” and “ultra-light” cigarettes, marketed extensively as a “healthy” alternative 12 years after the Surgeon General’s 1964 report, were like regulars but with “a pinhole in them.” Sure, it was fashionable for tough guys—when bumming, say, a Marlboro Light—to rip off the filter, but that was mostly show. In fact, when I switched from regular Merits to the ultra-light brand, it took just two days to feel the same pull from the cigarette.

All of this may seem frivolous or worse in today’s virulent anti-tobacco environment—take a look at myspace profiles and you’ll find very few members who admit to smoking—but when the cigarette cult is finally extinguished, it is important in terms of 20th-century pop culture and business history not to distort a staple of American life (like horse-drawn carriages or transistor radios) that was once so prevalent and vibrant. 

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