Most Americans, and I am sure the chief executive officers of the major tobacco manufacturing plants, knew that smoking was not good for your health more than 50 years ago.
I can remember hearing the comment, "Here's another nail in your coffin," as someone handed you a cigarette, many years ago.
In 1947, 62 years ago, Merle Travis wrote a song that was adopted by Tex Williams. Here are some of the lyrics:
"Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette; puff, puff, puff until you smoke yourself to death; tell St. Peter at the Golden Gate, that you hate to make him wait; but you just gotta have another cigarette."
Tex Williams followed in the trail of the famous Marlboro Man: he also died of lung cancer. "Tex" was a two-pack-a-day man. But even a horrifying anti-smoking commercial by the late Yul Brynner, televised after he died of lung cancer, could not and did not, slow down the rush to buy another pack of cigarettes.
In the commercial Brynner, still looking somewhat healthy, says, "Now that I'm gone, I tell you: Don't smoke, whatever you do, just don't smoke."
The commercial by the American Cancer Society was aired in 1986, soon after Brynner's death.
Fifty - 60 years ago, no one in a position of authority, not doctors or the tobacco industry, told us that smoking could cause lung cancer and other deadly illnesses. There were television shows totally sponsored by cigarette companies. There was "Your Hit Parade" with Snooky Lanson and Gisele McKenzie. And the show was filled with commercials featuring Lucky Strike Cigarettes.
The Camel News Caravan was anchored by John Cameron Swayze and ran from 1949 to 1956. One of the favorite bits of commercial advice on the show was, "More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette."
I started smoking at the Catholic Indian mission boarding school on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the 1940s. Back then it was a rite of passage. You were allowed to smoke once you started high school, which was the ninth grade. You became a "big guy" when you reached that grade.
The cigarettes of choice were those rolled on cigarette paper and filled with Bull Durham tobacco. The cigarettes Americans dubbed, "Tailor Made" didn't come along until a few years later. Of course "Tailor Made" simply meant that the cigarettes had filters or were machine rolled. We thought we were real cool with the tag and string from a Bull Durham pack hanging from our shirt pocket.
Tobacco was a crop cultivated by American Indians centuries before the arrival of the white man. It was used primarily in spiritual gathering and was smoked in a ceremonial pipe, a pipe that was misnamed "Peace Pipe" because, as a spiritual offering, it was used at important ceremonies including at talks of peace. In the Indian way, the act of smoking the pipe at the end of a meeting was an indication that the deal had been sealed and the pipe was the spiritual conclusion.
Millions of Americans got hooked on smoking when they joined the armed forces. When I served, I could buy a pack of cigarettes at the PX for 10 cents. A carton cost $1. When we shipped out for overseas we were often given two or three free cartons. And taking a "smoke break" was a significant part of the day in the military. When a soldier was sitting in a fox hole with death just over the next ridge, a long drag on a cigarette did a whole lot to ease the tension. No one told that soldier he was endangering his life with that cigarette.
And, of course, the movies did much to romanticize cigarette smoking. There was a scene in one movie where the hero takes two cigarettes from the pack, places both of them in his mouth and lights them simultaneously. He then removes one from his mouth and places it between the lips of his girlfriend. When we were teenagers, I think most of us tried to duplicate this little trick, too often discovering that the cigarettes had a tendency to stick to your lips. Romance flew out of the window when the cigarette tore your lip and it started to bleed.
I give my employees a smoke break in the morning and one in the afternoon. They have to smoke outside because it is not allowed in the office. And since I have been a non-smoker for a very long time, as I see them heading out for their smoke break, I cannot help but wonder if they realize the danger they are courting or I wonder what pleasure they can get from something that may eventually kill them. It's a curious thing.
But they won't quit.
Many states now have anti-smoking laws and we seem to be moving, as a nation, in that direction. But we are facing the same situation confronting the gun lobby: "When guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns." Can the same be said in defense of cigarettes? Here's another nail in your coffin!
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association and is now the publisher of the Native Sun News. He can be reached at editornsweekly.com.