Old Things That Are Tough To Explain: Why Did So Many People Smoke Cigarettes?
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?
When I was a kid, I was punished for saying the word crap. Looking back, it kind of ticks me off because now I know…
And here is the true story of my one moment of high school glory!