Is Tobacco Here to Stay?

BERGEN EVANS has written several Atlantic articles in recent years, and parts of his book, The Natural History of Nonsense, appeared in onr pages.


THE presidents of the big tobacco companies undoubtedly have other things to worry about, but if I were one of them I would spend a little time wondering why Samuel Johnson didn’t smoke. Johnson himself didn’t know. “Smoking has gone out,” he observed to Boswell. “Yet I cannot account why a thing which requires so little exertion, and yet preserves the mind from total vacuity, should have gone out.”

It had been tremendously popular in the preceding century. Despite King James’s Counterblaste and Tobias Yenner’s warning that, tobacco “drieth the brain, dimmeth the sight, vitiateth the smell, hurteth the stomach, disturbeth the humours, corrupteth the breath, annoyeth the milt, scorcheth the heart and causeth the blood to be adjusted,” everybody had smoked in the seventeenth cent ury.

Taverns had racks of pipes just as they had racks of tankards, and ladies as well as gentlemen enjoyed t heir “ dish of tobacco.” Pepys raged, but in vain, against “the incorrigible liberty” of workmen smoking in the shipyards. Pope Urban VIII found it necessary to forbid smoking during divine service (though Benedict XIII rescinded the prohibition, and tourists in South America may still occasionally perceive — as at Lima — a chaste spittoon beside an episcopal throne). Even the ascetic Milton never retired without “a glass of water and a pipe of tobacco” to set his cloudy fancy going.

Then everybody stopped. Smoking just “went out,” as Johnson said. The fashionable world took snuff and left smoking to such crusty eccentrics as Walter Shandy and his brother Toby. There was, no doubt, a subterranean world of smoking, just as in the United States today there is a subterranean world of snuff-taking that manages to consume more than 40 million pounds of snuff a year. But the great mass of people gave up smoking and probably knew no more than Johnson why they did.

And that is where, if I were a tobacco magnate or even (alas that I am not!) a considerable stockholder, I would begin to worry a little because, setting aside all of the blandishments of the advertisements and all the fulminations of the anti-tobacco crusaders, smoking is for most people, to a large extent, a social and psychological habit, and such things are notoriously subject to change without notice. Smoking has gone out before and can go out again. Indeed, it would be an unusual student of mass habits who would interpret the fantastic increase in cigarette smoking in the past forty years as an indication of anything but the impermanence of the habit.

Bolstered by the report that 350 billion cigarettes had been consumed in the United States alone in 1949, and cheered by the reflection that cigarettes seem to have become the basic currency in every collapsed economy (and further cheered by the fact that a lot more economies seem about to collapse), the magnate might well deem his income secure and scoff at any suggestion of a rift in the rich clouds that his customers gratefully puff around him.

But there is a rift and it could indicate a sweeping change. And that rift is that more women than men now seem to smoke in America.

A questionnaire distributed to approximately 1500 students at Northwestern University, over the past two years, reveals that 60 per cent of the girls smoke but only 52 per cent of the boys. And conversations with many high school principals in the Chicago area suggest that the proportion of girls who smoke over boys who smoke is even higher in high school than in college.

Any number of explanations can be found, of course. Girls mature earlier, and hence the comparison is not between men and women but between women and boys (and to support this it may be said that the percentages approached equality as the students progressed from the freshman to the senior year). Girls smoke to avoid overeating. Boys don’t smoke because they want to be athletes. College boys are not as well off as college girls and the cost is a more serious matter to them. And so on, and so on.

Each of these explanations probably has a degree of truth in it, but neither singly nor together do they affect the fact that more girls than boys now smoke, and it is from this fact (if it be a fact), and not from the reasons for it, that a change may come.

For let the fact become generally known — and a slight increase in the number of women smokers will soon make it obvious — and the American male, always sensitive about his masculinity, may stampede to cutplug or marijuana. No commodity that relies upon or hopes to obtain the patronage of George F. Babbitt or Li’l Abner can survive the blight being thought sissy. Not till the young aviators of World War I (whose virility was beyond question) adopted them did wrist watches for men become acceptable. Umbrellas arc still suspect, and no American man with hair on his chest would hesitate moment in preferring pneumonia. And is there a he-man anywhere within the boundaries of these United States, with so much as a gonad to guide him, who would be found dead in the gay garments that Miss Hawes and Vogue plan for him? True, men once did wear splendid raiment — peach waistcoats, crimson velvet breeches, bunches of lace at throat and wrist, gold-trimmed hats, and the like—but that was when women stuck pretty close to black and white. When they took up the colors, the men fled into the shadows.

So the manufacturer who recently announced his intention of making special cigarettes in various pastel shades for the ladies had an idea. But probably a bad idea. It would only hasten the stigmatization and might precipitate the great renunciation because the majority of women (judging from the answers to the college questionnaire) begin, at least, to smoke because it is still the manly thing to do. Let it become the womanly tiling to do and the women probably won’t do it.

There are other factors, of course, that complicate the situation and make prophecy absurd. Smoking is to a large extent a response to uneasiness, and the forces that make for uneasiness are working overtime. Then it smooths over a hundred little social predicaments, fills the vacuities of life, interrupts monotony, prevents conversation from becoming too serious, justifies idleness, and discourages mosquitoes. These are solid values, not lightly to be supplanted. But all the same there is a threat — no larger at the moment than a young man’s hand courteously waving away an offered cigarette, but it ‘s there.