By Larry Teren
Baby Boomers were raised in an era when smoking was still socially acceptable. It wasn’t until 1964 that the Surgeon General of the United States came out with the warning linking cigarette smoking to cancer. Most smokers shrugged their collective shoulders and ignored the dire message. Not Ma- she quit smoking an occasional drag of a cigarette cold turkey. She claims today that she only smoked when Uncle Henry brought her gift packages. Dad was a pipe smoker and quit smoking earlier than 1964 when one day he almost swallowed the pipe while making a sudden stop in his car.
I never developed the habit of cigarette smoking and looked on with disdain at those who did. So did my siblings as well as their spouses. To be fair and honest, I did light up a cigarillo just once out of curiosity while in college. It had a plastic tip attachment. It felt like I was inhaling menthol fumes and quickly tossed it after a few puffs.
For years, most people justified the habit of cigarette smoking because it calmed the nerves and helped with digestion and reduced the appetite. For others, it was a surrogate to dieting. How many people have you heard claim that they gained significant weight after they gave up cigarette smoking? As I’ve written elsewhere, I recall the time Dad brought me along to visit a doctor to console him on the loss of a parent. This happened in the mid 1960’s. Talk got around to the Surgeon General’s proclamation about the evils of cigarette smoking. The doctor sneered at it and said the findings were totally inconclusive and that he would continue to smoke cigarettes. He died six months later from cancer.
Movie characters were shown to be sophisticated, adult-like and/or serious while speaking and holding onto a cigarette between their thumb and index finger. Who can forget the famous scene in Now, Voyager when Paul Henreid lit two cigarettes in his mouth and then handed one off so gallantly to Bette Davis. Even with it’s social acceptance, there must have been a latent or foreboding knowledge of the potential danger to one’s lungs by smoking. Children were always discouraged from trying until they were adult. Those caught in possession of cigarettes were invariably punished.
I bring this up because of a video clip I viewed of the television game show I’ve Got a Secret from the mid 1950’s. There were two discomforting actions that took place which would cause most decent people to wince fifty plus years later. The contestant on the show was a twelve year old girl whose secret to stump the panel was that she was wearing lipstick for the very first time. (It must have been a slow week for finding good secrets.)
After one of the panel members finally correctly guessed her secret, there was the usual bantering between the host and the guest. The host, Garry Moore, was a well-known and respected radio and television personality. The show’s chief sponsor was a tobacco company. It was a ritual regardless of how much money the guest won to give him or her a parting gift of a carton of cigarettes Without blinking an eye, Garry took a carton manufactured by the tobacco company and handed it to the girl indicating that it was for her father. I can recall even in the 1960’s going to the corner basement grocery store and purchasing a carton of cigarettes for my mother with the money Uncle Henry gave me. The only reason the shop keeper gave me the carton was because he believed me that I was telling the truth. Otherwise, he would have got in trouble with the law. Of course, in today’s world you cannot have underage messengers procuring articles of questionable propriety on your behalf.
The other action was, in my opinion, a little more bordering on something that could get you a five to ten year vacation in the hoosegow. Garry asked the twelve year old girl if she ever had been kissed by a boy. She giggled and said no. He asked her if she would like to have the opportunity and leaned in almost as if he was willing to volunteer, like a king with first rights option. It was an awkward moment and he realized that he was taking the conversation into a highly inappropriate direction. That is when he made amends by making sure she took home with her the carton of cigarettes.
The by-play was shrugged off and being cute and innocent. In today’s world of over-scrutinizing, Garry would have been pulled from his host job and the media would have had a few days of beating the story to death.
You can’t beat progress.