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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A slogan remembered: "Not a cough in a carload."

By Dick Hirsch

Come with me now to those memorable days of yesteryear when your parents smoked and knew how to field strip a cigarette butt so they wouldn’t litter the backyard. Their last official act each evening at bedtime was to empty the ashtrays.

It’s both astounding and hilarious to think of it now, realizing how popular smoking was and how the tobacco companies ran wild, mercilessly promoting their brands, dedicated to addicting the young, thus creating perennial customers. Generations have passed since then and many people have no recollection or knowledge of those days. Athletes, movie stars, other celebrities and some doctors were paid to appeared in cigarette ads, giving testimonials touting certain brands for supposedly being mellower, milder, smoother, or tastier.

Innocence abounded then, although I do remember getting advice from a fellow eighth grader that “smoking could stunt your growth.” We know much more now than they did then. Cigarette packs have carried a warning from the Surgeon General for over 40 years, citing health risks. Taxes, both federal and state, have been raised to the point where a pack costs around 30 times more than it did in the old days.

The lethal characteristics of smoking have been widely researched and reported for years. Despite the best efforts of the tobacco industry the number of regular smokers in the US has slowly dwindled to around 21 percent; still, many of the young are enlisting, placidly unaware of their own mortality. The status of smokers has been downgraded to second class citizens. They cannot smoke in restaurants and public places and they are seen huddling together outside, eagerly inhaling until it is time to hurry back inside.

Today there are fewer places selling cigarettes. Stores on Indian reservations are major outlets because they don’t collect state taxes. Convenience stores continue to be primary sources, but decades ago neighborhood drug stores were the favored places to buy a pack or a carton. Hindsight suggests how ironic it was to have pharmacists as the major tobacco dealers.

This was all brought to mind during a visit to a small exhibition in Buffalo supported by the Roswell Park Cancer Institute. It displayed a large collection of signs and premiums used to advertise and promote cigarette sales. The memories came drifting back of the slogan that captivated a generation: “L.S.M.F.T.,” which every man, woman and child could translate, “Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco.”

Coincidentally, a Lucky Strike smoker was on duty as a volunteer greeting visitors the day I visited the exhibit. His name is Richard Schneider and he was perfectly suited for the role, sitting there with his oxygen tank enabling him to breathe and discuss his smoking history without major effort. Schneider, 82, was accompanied by his wife, Sharon. He described himself as a three pack a day smoker for over 35 years.

“Yes, I smoked Luckies, but I really smoked them all....Chesterfield, Camels, Philip Morris, Old Gold...hell, they were only about 20 or 25 cents a pack. I remember when Pall Mall came out with a longer cigarette and people rushed to try them. Nobody smoked filtered cigarettes in those days.”

The years of smoking weakened Schneider’s respiratory system but he was able to continue his work as an insurance agent. A few years ago as his condition deteriorated the oxygen tank and the delicate line connecting to his nostrils became an essential part of his life. The day of my visit was the only time Schneider himself became a part of the exhibit, surrounded by mementoes from the bad old days:

“Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should...Salem, move up to the refreshest...Merit, reach for a world of flavor...20,679 physicians say Luckies are less irritating....Old Gold, not a cough in a carload...For your throat’s sake, switch from ‘hots’ to Kools...More scientists and educators smoke Kent with the micronite filter than any other cigarette...38,381 dentists say smoke Viceroys, (they) filter the smoke, can never stain your teeth...More doctors smoke Camels...Virginia Slims: You’ve come a long way, baby...Newport, alive with pleasure...L & M, the filter cigarette for people who really like to smoke...”

It was a golden age of sloganeering until legislation restricted tobacco ads on television and in magazines and newspapers. The emphasis then switched to in-store displays and premiums. Persistence can be a sinister quality.


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