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Old Things That Are Tough To Explain: Why Did So Many People Smoke Cigarettes?

December 7, 2015
This old ad would probably be considered to be in poor taste today. (image via wikimedia)

This old ad would probably be considered to be in poor taste today. (image via wikimedia)

Back when I was a kid, almost everybody I knew smoked.  My parents smoked, and my friends’ parents smoked.  My brothers smoked, my friends’ brothers/sisters smoked, and even a couple of my friends got started in their early teen years.

Things have changed.  Now, nobody in my family smokes.  The relatives who had smoked when I was a kid either have either quit or… you know.

Yesterday my youngest daughter asked me for permission to use her own phone to look up what a lit cigarette looks like.  She said she didn’t know how yellow/orange the lit end of the cigarette would be, and she wanted to get the color exactly right for a poster she was making for a school project.  I thought it was strange that she asked me for permission, but she said she didn’t want me to think she was interested in smoking.

My daughter had just finished reading The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, and she thought it was weird that all the characters in the book smoked cigarettes.  I told her a generation ago, smoking was normal, but my daughters thought I was exaggerating.  I’m not a huge believer in teachable moments, but I still gave them my speech about how things used to be:

When I was a kid, the cool people smoked.  Every restaurant had a huge smoking section and a tiny non-smoking section, usually by the restrooms.  Even non-smokers would ask to be seated in the smoking section because they wanted to be in the cool section (or they didn’t want to be next to the restrooms).  Supposedly, conversations were more interesting in the smoking section.  That implied that smokers were more interesting than non-smokers.

That made sense to me.  I’ve always been told that I’m boring, and I’ve always been a non-smoker.  Maybe I should have smoked to become more interesting.  I knew drinking made people more interesting, but I didn’t want to get into drunken fights or wreck my car just to be interesting.  But smoking?  You could look more interesting simply by holding a cigarette.

I once tried to be cool by holding a cigarette as if I were going to smoke it, but it backfired.  As soon as I held it, somebody lit it, and when you’re holding a lit cigarette, all the smokers around you will notice if you’re not smoking it.  An unsmoked lit cigarette is a wasted cigarette, and smokers won’t allow that, even if it’s not their cigarette.

In high school, a bunch of teachers would run to the parking lot between classes to have a smoke.  Boys would run to the bathrooms to have a smoke.  I’m not sure if girls ran to the bathroom for a smoke because I never went inside the girls bathroom, but I knew a bunch of girls who smoked, and they always ran to the bathrooms between classes.

Instead of cupholders, movie theater seats had ash trays on the armrests.  We used to put our drinks on our laps or underneath our seats.  Theater floors were thick with layers of goo because of all the spilled drinks.  Shoes would make squishy sounds whenever we walked to our seats.  Now that smoking has been banned in theaters, the floors are cleaner, but people in the audience talk more.  At least smoking made them quiet.

Since everybody smoked, everybody’s houses smelled like stale secondhand smoke, and kids had to play outside to avoid getting sick.  That’s right.  Kids in the past HAD to play outside, not because there was no cable television or no internet or no video games; it was too nauseating to stay in the house all day.

Smoking was so addictive that smokers didn’t give up their rights to smoke in public without a fight.  When anti-smoking crusaders finally began making headway in anti-smoking legislation, smokers started calling them Nazis.  You know somebody has lost an argument when they call the opposing group “Nazis.”

Anti-smoking crusaders weren’t anything like real Nazis.  Anti-smoking crusaders just didn’t want you smoking where they are forced to breathe it.  A real Nazi would tell you not to smoke, then arrest you and your family (or maybe kill you and your family),  and then take everything you own, and then smoke all your cigarettes.

I can’t explain nicotine addiction or what it does.  My own addiction is caffeine.  If I had to quit caffeine, I’d be grumpy too.  I’m glad that there’s no second-hand coffee, but my coffee breath can be pretty bad.  I hope the coffee Nazis don’t try to ban coffee just because of coffee breath.  I despise the use of the word “Nazi,” but I’d probably use it if anybody tried to ban coffee.  Lack of caffeine would make me that desperate.

I’m glad that a book assigned in school could inspire a history lesson about smoking.  It’s important for this younger generation to understand what things used to be like.  Kids today are lucky that they don’t have to put with so many smokers around them.  Or maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe kids are unlucky because they are missing out on the opportunity to have so much “fun” smoking.


What do you think?  Which is worse, secondhand smoke or coffee breath?  Is it worse to be a smoker or an anti-smoking Nazi?  Should anybody other than a Nazi ever be called a Nazi?  Do smokers really have more interesting conversations, or was that just a myth?


For more about old things that are tough to explain, read Old Things That Are Tough To Explain: Racist Jokes.


Even though I don’t touch cigarettes, I was accused of smoking other stuff while writing these two books.

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!                  Now available on Amazon!

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

From → Pop culture

  1. Tobacco used to be real and now its like a husk of its former self loaded with hundreds of other things that make the shitty cigs that less people smoke all the time…science has shown how bad it is…most kids would rather smoke weed….or vape their nicotine instead of smoking it

  2. Secondhand smoke is worse. I consume coffee, but its not harming anyone else. It’s worse to be a smoker because of the damage to someone’s health. I don’t like the term Nazi applied to smoking, soup kitchens, feminism, or anything else. Smokers have smoking in common–therefore something additional to talk about. I found it interesting during basic training in the Vietnam era, that smokers got breaks. Non-smokers didn’t get breaks and had to pick up trash on the parade ground. That, and cigarettes were dirt-cheap, 15 cents a pack. It encouraged smoking.

    • Nonsmokers didn’t get breaks?? I like breaks. I might have started smoking just to get my breaks. Plus, I don’t like parades, so I’d really hate picking up trash after a parade just because I don’t smoke.

    • One of my “things” is Old Time Radio, and programs like Jack Benny and Bing Crosby would be sponsored by tobacco companies. During WWII, Lucky Strike would have an ad hailing the “GI of the Week”, and the soldiers of his company would receive free cartons of Lucky Strike.

      One of the great blows to the tobacco industry was being banned from advertising.

  3. The new “cool accessory” is the smartphone, and I think it’s going to keep pushing smoking out of the little area it has left, because it’s harder to use a smartphone when you’re smoking – holding a cigarette requires a hand, and lighting one requires both of them.

    • That would be an interesting study: Does having a smart phone decrease a person’s chances of becoming a smoker?

      All this time, we thought it was the anti-smoking crusaders that caused the decrease in youth smokers. Maybe it was really the cool technology that did it.

  4. I still smoke (maybe a curse of my age) and have a hard time to find any public space still allowing it. And I am addicted to coffe. Nothing belongs more together than coffee and cigarettes. And no, I don’t think, anything should be called Nazi, if it isn’t Nazi.

  5. You just have to take your daughter to countries like Greece, Switzerland or Turkey for her to see that many people still smoke. Although they are now obliged by law to have non-smoking in restaurants (thank goodness!), most people are out on the terrace even in winter, where they are allowed to smoke, or they learn how to circumnavigate the law a little.

    • “You just have to take your daughter to countries like Greece, Switzerland or Turkey for her to see that many people still smoke.”-

      I would, but I don’t like flying, and traveling costs a lot of money. Plus, my daughter would get mad at me if I took her to Greece and all we did was watch people smoke.

  6. Alastair Savage permalink

    Did you see this 1962 film on the BBC website a few years back, that shows the blithe indifference of smokers to the discovery that smoking causes cancer? It seems unreal to us now, but people reacted in the same way to the news earlier this year that processed meats cause cancer. No one ever takes these things seriously, until reality bites.

  7. Alice deGrey permalink

    At university (at least where I live) many people still smoke. Maybe as many as every third person. It’s still cool to smoke, at least in the bar with a beer and a couple of friends. We still have clubs and other places where the smoke is so thick that you wish you could play outside… Some cafés have smoking areas that are bigger than the non-smoking areas. I think smoking is still very much a thing, probably not as much as it used to be though.

  8. crepe permalink

    I’m 80 y.o. and began smoking at the age of 18 y.o. It was very sophisticated to smoke. After all, Carey Grant and Ingrid Bergman smoked, and that was all I needed. I also discovered that I enjoyed it. It gave me something to do with my hands. I quit for 15 years when my 3rd son was a year or so old, but then got a divorce and thought “Either I;m going to start drinking too much or start smoking again, and I chose smoking. I smoked another 8 years and then stopped and haven’t smoked since. I still occasionally will think “If someone would invent a ‘healthy’ cigarette, I’d smoke again, but no one has so I don’t.

    Tell your daughters that it’s a difficult habit to stop, so it’s best not to start. The color of the lit end of the cigarette is orangey-red, if I recall correctly, or is reddish-orange? She could also make it black.

  9. The worst smell, by far (with apologies to Iyart) is a combination of cigarettes and coffee. My mum smoked heavily for years and did (still does) drink about ten cups of coffee a day. Her breath when I was a child was … indescribable. It made me gag and turn away when she tried to kiss me. (She’s given up smoking now, thank goodness.)
    I clearly remember going to clubs in the nineties and feeling the need to shower when I got home, even if it was 3 a.m. The stench from the second hand smoke would stick with you, attach to your pillow. And your skin felt slightly sticky too – though that might have been from all of the pogo-ing we used to do 🙂
    We’re much better off without.

    • I had a teacher who smoked cigarettes, drank coffee, and ate Doritos. That smell was pretty bad.

      I agree, a lot of night clubs left me with a smelly wardrobe, but I don’t go anymore (not because of the smoking, though).

      • I’m trying to imagine how awful that smelt – no, I’d rather not, I think! And the last time I went to a nightclub … ? Can’t even remember. Probably twelve years ago. I think I must’ve transformed into a reverse vampire – if I go out at night, I’ll vanish in puff of smoke and ash 🙂

  10. I woke up … With a cigarette on my mind
    I woke up … With a cigarette on my mind
    I woke up … With a cigarette on my mind

    I checked my mail … And there it was
    … There was a mail
    With a cigarette on its mind .

    as for Cofee breath … Hmm … Well

    That is a minor issue … I think one should be more concerned about the dirty brown and sometimes yellow .. cracks streaks and stains between the teeth … Well .. bad breath =) is a common thing .. I don’t recall anyone in this world who ever woke up with a perfect breath … Correct me if I’m wrong … So yeah
    Cofee is fine … Though … There’s more pleasure to a substannce that would give you energy … And taste real bitter yet Devine with a touch of sugar … Well .. why would you even compare sweetness combined … With meterial and fire … If it both has the same bad breath effect … Smoking ?? Well … You tell me what it’s artificial flavour =)taste like .

    I guess … A cigarette cures loneliness
    Or Bordem so when a bunch of non boring
    People group together .. and puff puff bounce bounce ..
    If becomes an extened version of a Bordem boost to those who aren’t even bored .. so why not induldge ?

    So .. I’d say though … I don’t agree with second hand smoking … You inhailing the left overs and grey smoke of some one else’s pleasure of the burn and fire lit right on top of cigeret … Where as a secnd hand smoker … Inhail the the worst of it and the lung damage becomes toatally uneccesarry to be doing to one’s self . And the terrible intake of the smoke you breath in when the smoker breaths it out… If that smoke is not good enough for the short lifened first hand smoker .. then why do a nonsmoker deserve to inhail left overs … that a smoker breaths out ..

    It’s like ‘recicling a black back in a dirt bin to put it in another clean dirt bin . Where as the theory of people taking the dirt out of the black bag in the dirt bin .. sounds completely shrood and unthinkable ..

    But … Well .. as a social smoker … That’s just my opinion .

    As for .. a ” Nazi ” …
    What is that ?…what does it even mean .
    In my opinion .. that’s just four random letters of the alphabet that were put together . Shallow and empty . Poetically wastfull .

    Being cool can either be out standing or quietly brilliant .. and well if smoking seems to be the outstanding version of cool .. then
    Why not be proud of a cup of coffee and an intersting conversation with whoever joins you … And know for a fact that the conversation is garenteed and ain’t no myth .. where as a conversation over a cigarette … That has to be questioned as mythical or real . Well
    If a group ouf outstanding people had to each be outside with a cooldrink each .. in their hands … Do you think the conversation would be less cool ?? What about the introversts or the geeks that smoke in the group … Even though they smoking .. do you think theyl be talking much .. or really just enjoying the relief and the burn of a cigarette? …

    Maybe you Could intrigue us with an article about a ciggeret being a stress relief and a confidence gain …Then turn the word Nazi into the word “Haters” defined as a miserable bunch of breathing humans .
    But that’s all I have left to say .. and that …

    I woke up with a cigarette on my mind . –

  11. Just last night we watched Lethal Weapon (Christmas movie with no schmaltz) and my son wanted to know why the Mel Gibson character kept smoking even though it was so bad for him and his friend asked him not to. Wow. That was a conversation. Luckily I used to smoke so I was prepared to explain it from many perspectives.

  12. Cool smoking = myth

  13. housewifexhouselife permalink

    I feel like smoking is still a thing. Maybe it’s a demographic thing. Everyone I know smokes or has smoked at one point. My husband is one of the few people who has never. He grew up with a crap ton of second hand smoke, but he has never done it himself. When we were dating he actually told me I had to quit or he didn’t want to be with me anymore. 17 year old me quit right away. It’s nice to have everything now smell like smoke… or be able to breathe.

  14. Interesting post. My son is in 7th grade and they just started reading The Outsiders, and will watch the movie next month. All I remember is C. Thomas Howell needing to “stay golden,” not all the cigarettes. But we tried to watch “Stand By Me” last month, and they were smoking and cussing, so I wound up chunking it in the trash. It is amazing what has been accomplished in one generation. My high school had a smoking section until the late 80s. I remember not smoking then, but hanging out there before school, bc that’s where the cute boys in Metallica and Def Leppard shirts hung. Dancing at clubs, I never wanted to smoke, but again, if a boy you like is smoking, you bum a cigarette just for the interaction. Come to think of it, that’s how I met my ex, asking for a light at a bar. Now when he comes by, he smells like cigarettes, and that smells like the 80s/90s to me.

    You ever walk through a parking lot, and a smoker opens his car door, and the smell of the past just wafts out? Or estate sales? We go to many, and the walls just reek. It’s a stale, sad reminder of a strong addiction. I bet the commenter above is right about demographics. Austin has been smoke-free for years. When we visit smaller towns, it’s odd to suddenly catch a whiff of smoke and wonder who had the balls to light up. Kids may not smoke as much now, but they sure do glamorize vaping. I guess we needed something to do with our hands back then. Now they have phones. God forbid they stop texting and scrolling long enough to pack their smokes. Funny–I hadn’t even thought about packing smokes in 20 yrs. See what you did?

    • I don’t think there was much cussing in The Outsiders. There was a lot of smoking, though.

      I don’t remember much about Stand by Me, except train tracks and throw up. I hate throw up. Throw up should be banned from movies and TV. Maybe I’m a throw up Nazi.

      • Throwing up is gross. I know the pie scene to which you are referring, and it is unnecessary. Just reading that makes me think of Will Ferrell in his dizzy Christmas sketch where he spews outside his sleeve cuff. Ew!

  15. I have never touched an unlit cigarette and have felt uncomfortable when I have had to touch a pack of cigarettes just to move them to the other side of the table. The first and last time in my life that I was asked to go buy cigarettes for my uncle I was trying to think of excuses all the way to the store so that I could go back and say that I couldn’t buy them. When I had finally bought them, I quickly hid them in my pocket so that no one would see me holding a pack of cigarettes. As you might have guessed I’m very anti-smoking. When it comes to coffee, I am simply indifferent. I drink it…sometimes. But I can go for months without having a cup of coffee. Do these facts make me ‘uncool’? Does the fact that I wish to sit in non-smoke-infested cafe/bar/restaurant/whatever make me a Nazi? I don’t care. I don’t care if smokers call me a Nazi. As far as I am concerned one person’s freedom ends where another person’s rights begin. I have a right to good health and clean breathing atmosphere. If you are willing to provide me that, you can freely go smoke in your smoking area along with your smoker friends in a room where you can’t see your nose from the cigarette smoke and come back stinking from top to bottom. This is your right.

  16. I’m a non-smoker but do get nostalgic when I go into a room that smells like cigarettes. I associate the memory with going to restaurants as a kid, or visiting my grandparents. That’s about the only positive I’m afraid.

  17. Paul kinnunen permalink

    hi my name is paul I have tried smoking a cigarette but nothing came out of my mouth I tried but no nothing I sucked it and I puffed it but no nothing

  18. Soheila Bolurfrushan permalink

    I always associate smoking with hillbillies and other folks on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. Those people never seemed cool to me. The image of the leather-jecket “rebel” posing with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth seems soooo pretentious to me, trying way too hard to look cool, and by virtue of trying to look cool, it’s just an epic fail. Desperation is never cool. Also, I always thought, how is it being cool and rebellious to emulate our parents? Seriously, buying into Madinson Avenue’s sales pitch, lock stock and barrell without hesitation or question, makes you… an independent sophisticated “outsider”? Like Barnum said, I guess there’s a sucker born every minute.

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