Last week, Congress passed and President Obama signed legislation that greatly enhances federal regulation of the tobacco industry. As a historian, I generally think change happens slowly but the rapidity with which American society has transformed from cultural acceptance, even approval of smoking, to a completely negative view is starling.
When I was growing up, my parents and almost all the adults, I knew smoked. As a teenager and young adult smoking was both everywhere – bars, restaurants, public events and arenas – and heavily advertised on television. In the forty-five years since the Surgeon General’s report on the harm smoking causes, there has been a warning label, a ban on television advertising, the creation of smoke-free indoor space and, recently, smoke-free outdoor spaces.
The newspaper stories discussing the pending legislation use the term “addiction” to describe the practice of smoking. This also represents significant change. For much of American history, society has characterized nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol as legal, primarily harmless habits. Alcohol was usually the most problematic of the three. Now, nicotine, although legal, falls under the broad category of psychoactive, addictive substance, similar in their effects on the body.
Moralists have always viewed smoking as undesirable behavior. This attitude kept women from smoking for many years. When smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke became a public health issue, the battle lines changed. If alcohol use and or abuse ever became predominantly a public health issue rather than one of individual choice or morality, brewers and distillers could face more of an uphill battle to maintain the legitimacy of their industry.