The Changing Attitudes Toward Smoking in Louisville and Beyond

The announcement Wednesday by CVS pharmacies that, as of Oct. 1, they will no longer sell cigarettes in their 7,600 locations is another step in the long march that began 50 years ago this winter, when the Surgeon General’s Report on tobacco and cancer was first issued. (CVS operates 14 stores in Louisville, and is preparing to open a new one on the first floor of the old Stewart’s Dry Goods building at Fourth and Muhammad Ali.)

My hunch is that this may be only the beginning. In a Washington Post story, CVS executives explained that by taking tobacco products off their shelves, CVS can further define its stores as “full-fledged health care providers and strike more profitable deals with hospitals and health insurers.” That makes a lot of sense, particularly in an era when insurance companies are now adding a surcharge to premiums for those who smoke, presumably because the cost of their health care from smoking-linked diseases (cancer, emphysema, COPD, asthma, throat infections and the like) tends to be more costly.

I well recall the evening of Jan. 11, 1964, when my parents, my brother and I gathered around a portable television in our kitchen and watched a news report about the Surgeon General’s findings. In my home, my father—then 36—was the main person affected by the findings. He had smoked cigarettes since he was a boy in rural Fisherville, where my grandfather had a tobacco farm and the general store, and he had continued to do so in the Navy in World War II (where government rations contained packets of cigarettes) and back home in the states after the war when he married, raised a family and moved to the city.

My mother never really smoked, although she occasionally puffed on one—for social reasons, I think, since almost everyone smoked when I was a child. I can remember the smells associated with cigarettes, including the crunchy, leafy smell of a newly opened pack, as well as the slightly intoxicating smell of the fluid in the silver lighter on the coffee table in our living room. The actual smell of tobacco smoke wasn’t so pleasant, but children grew accustomed to it, because it was noticeable wherever you went.

Initially it was my father who changed his habits, sort of. As far as I know he gave up cigarettes that January week in 1964, or soon thereafter. The initial reaction was that pipe-smoking was far more healthful, especially if you did not inhale. His affection for nicotine was so strong that he did, indeed, inhale, and when he exhaled (whether in the living room or in our car) all the rest of us inhaled his second-hand smoke.

In time, this would catch up with him. By the age of 52, in the summer of 1978, he had his first heart attack. Fortunately, heart surgery had made great strides by that time, so he underwent bypass surgery a few months later. But over the remaining 30 years of his life, he experienced setbacks with heart attacks, further blockage and ultimately congestive heart failure. To his dying day, he blamed smoking for his problems.

Even if he had not smoked, we kids were exposed to it everywhere else, including (and particularly) in the restrooms of public schools, where young teenagers of my era were slipping away to puff away between classes, at lunchtime and after school. Of course it was against the rules. But despite occasional “busts” the school administrators generally looked the other way. And why not? Most of them puffed away in the teachers’ lounges.

When I was 16, I had my first job at a newspaper, in Evansville. Newsrooms were noisy, with bells ringing on phones, typewriters and teletype machines. Reporters yelled across the big room and at busy times, it was true bedlam. All the while people puffed away on cigarettes, cigars and pipes. Occasionally hot ashes would set fire to the tall wastepaper baskets filled with copy paper. Wonder that more newspaper buildings didn’t go up in flames in those days.

In retrospect, the fact that I didn’t smoke probably didn’t make much difference. I inhaled large quantities of smoke in those years. Later when I went to The Courier-Journal, the situation was much the same, except there were more people and more smokers.

Although I never smoked in the newsroom, I did experiment once I got to college. Thinking back I believe that my reasons had to do, oddly enough, with seeking comfort in a tempestuous time. It was the fall of 1969; I was a sophomore in college, working in a new job in Louisville, my mother had a serious health crisis and the draft lottery was conducted for the first time. And of course, remember that a teenager in those days not only saw smoking all around him or her; it was all over television in the endless ads for Camels, Benson and Hedges, Kent, Tareyton (“I’d rather fight than switch”), L&Ms, Winston (“Tastes good like a cigarette should”), etc. 

And favorite TV stars like Lucy and Desi, Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, Groucho Marx and Edward R. Murrow puffed away like there was no tomorrow. And the Marlboro Man—he was everywhere, on TV, on billboards, in advertisements in newspapers, magazines and billboards. The message was: Smoking may be dangerous, but it’s cool and almost everybody does it.

The availability of cigarettes for people of all ages must be unimaginable to young people today—who will be carded when they attempt to purchase tobacco. And increasingly it is difficult even to find cigarettes.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, vending machines were everywhere. I remember my cousin buying cigarettes from a vending machine at Plehn’s Bakery in St. Matthews when he was no more than 12 or 13. In a bakery, for goodness sakes!

At the Courier-Journal there were machines all over the building, and there was a snack bar on the first floor where the entire back wall was lined with cigarettes of every conceivable brand. As memory serves, the prices were still low, perhaps 35 cents a package in the mid-1970s. Cigarette advertisements were officially banned from television on Jan. 2, 1971. But the Marlboro Man continued to ride the range in magazine and newspaper advertising. According to Advertising Age magazine, the last Marlboro ad to appear in the United States ran in Motor Trend en Espanol in May 2005. In retrospect, some of those ads seem utterly outrageous. I remember one of a strapping blonde guy, obviously relaxing after a workout at the gym, taking a moment for a cigarette.

The ubiquitous nature of cigarettes in those days was a fact of life. If you went to a dinner party, the host and hostess often would have small dishes of cigarettes and lighters or monogrammed books of matches at various spots on the table. Similarly, during cocktail hour, little jars of cigarettes appeared on coffee tables and so on. People smoked before, during and after a meal. 

Cigarette companies were masterful at thinking of promotional gimmicks, even after television was no longer an option for them. Back in the late 1970s, pretty young women walked the streets of Louisville carrying trays of cigarettes—Merit was one brand I remember—and passing them out for free to passersby. For free! I used to collect them as I walked to lunch and back. Then I brought them back to give them to a friend and editor at The Courier-Journal. That friend died of lung cancer in 1985 at the youthful age of 51.

Smoking was banned gradually inside The Courier-Journal; for a time it was allowed only in “smoking rooms,” which were specially (but not very well) ventilated for the purpose. Then around 1990, indoor smoking was banned entirely, leading to an era when smokers huddled in clusters outside, and neither rain, nor snow, nor cold of night could deter these people from taking their cigarette breaks.

There were scofflaws, of course, beginning with the newspaper’s publisher, a crusty former news reporter and editor. He refused to give up his cigars, which he smoked with his door shut in the corner office. So did the newspaper’s cartoonist, who reported to me. Because Hugh Haynie was such a major figure, and because he was getting along in years, nobody challenged him. Hugh tried to cover up the telltale scent by using large quantities of cheap air freshener, which got into the ventilation system and caused another colleague, an ex-smoker, to choke.

A final recollection about the impact of smoking on my career. In my early days as an editorial writer, I made the statement in an editorial that smoking was a cause of cancer. Not the cause, but a cause. At that time, several major tobacco companies had their headquarters in Louisville, and a lot of cigarettes were produced in our factories. The letters of outrage started to roll in to the publisher, who forward copies to my editor and to me. I was warned about the correct terminology to use, always modifying phrases to say things like “smoking has been linked in some studies to instances of cancer.”

But deep down, I knew, and I think most everyone around me knew that cigarettes were coffin nails.

With all this as background, it is refreshing to see that finally it’s the private sector, not government, that is issuing the rules. I wouldn’t be surprised if other pharmacies as well as grocery stores follow CVS’ lead. And meanwhile, I forgot to mention that the media brought us word on Jan. 26 that one of the last “Marlboro Men” died of smoking related disease. Eric Lawson, whose face was familiar in the mid-to-late ’70s, died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) at the age of 71. His wife, who was interviewed, said that even though Lawson had recognized the dangers of smoking and did advertisements later in life encouraging people not to smoke, he kept up the habit until nearly the end, when he was diagnosed with COPD.

“He knew the cigarettes had a hold on him,” said Susan Lawson, adding: “He knew, yet he couldn’t stop.”

Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal.

He’ll discuss this commentary at about 1:30 p.m. during Here & Now.

Read his past WFPL commentaries here.

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