Remember when cigarettes were "healthy"? - (8/31/2021)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

Lou came into the pharmacy with a prescription and asked the pharmacist how long it would take to fill. "Give me about 20 or 25 minutes, Lou," the pharmacist replied. "Good, I can go outside and grab a ciggie or two!" Yes, and when Lou comes back in, he will smell like stale smoke. Only the Lord and his x-rays can determine the damage smoking does to Lou's lungs with every puff. But what else is new? We have known for 70 years that cigarettes are bad for your health – way before Lou was born. When Lou came back into the store later, the pharmacist gently needled him, "Hey, we have nicotine gum on sale if you want to try a pack!" "Nah, I'm not ready for that stuff yet," Lou laughed. "But tell me something, doc. My grandpa told me that smoking used to be healthy for you. What happened to that?" 

The pharmacist explained to Lou that it was not because cigarettes were good for you. It was that advertisers told you they were good for you. Once hooked on nicotine, the public adored that their habit was a plus. They loved that the hip people partook. Movie stars smoked in every scene. TV quiz shows featured stylish panelists who inhaled on live TV (e.g., Cavalier Cigarettes sponsored "I've Got a Secret," so lighting up was encouraged). And for the children who probably thought nothing about their parents turning the family room’s oxygen into a choking blue haze? All was OK when they saw cartoon characters Fred and Wilma Flintstone puffing on their favorite brand, Winston’s. Don’t forget Joe Camel, the coolest excuse to get hump and mouth disease.  

But even before then – from the 1930s to the 1950s – cigarettes were marketed to people with asthma and other respiratory problems so they could breathe better. Still, there was that annoying side effect called coughing that was getting attention. Coughing? No problem. Let's reassure the smoking public who were paying millions to keep the tobacco industry aloft. Let's hire "doctors" (that is, actors clad in white coats) to explain that more menthol would quell concerns that cigarettes were not safe. Filter cigarettes were wildly popular because rental quacks told them that the tips allegedly prevented the tar, cyanide, and other 250 chemicals found in cigarettes from entering their lungs. But the public got hoodwinked again. While the filters trapped the bad stuff, the good stuff – the nerve-calming, concentration-increasing nicotine – was also ensnared by the filter. Note that the typical smoker needs a certain amount of the psychoactive drug per day to satisfy the urge. Thus, more filtered cigarettes would have to be smoked each day to stop one from kicking the cat across the room or telling one’s boss to shove it. That means more pesos plunked in the tobacco industry's coffers, but sadly, more consumers plopped into early coffins.  

The statistics provided the grim truth. According to the CDC, a constellation of events coalesced to bring tobacco smoking to the public: tobacco leaf blending that enhanced smoke inhalation, the invention of the safety match, transportation that expedited distribution of smoking products, and advertising, mainly via the new mediums of radio and TV. Consequently, between 1900 and 1963, smoking per capita zoomed over 8000%. In turn, lung cancer increased 1525% between 1930 and 1990, with few therapies to successfully treat it. Through much effort, cancer rates have since decreased due to education, increased tobacco taxes, industry price hikes, and harsh limitations on advertising. Yet, many folks keep lighting up, draining healthcare dollars, and killing themselves.

Humans have been ingesting tobacco for 5,000 years or more. That's not going to end. What can end is the way grifters profit from our weaknesses – by using our brains. If this is what Darwin meant by "survival of the fittest," then in 2021, the more apt phrase is "survival of the smartest."  To guys like our friend Lou, take heed. 

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a recovering pharmacist and writer-in-residence at Rx-Press.

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