Some 18 percent of American adults smoke, down from 42 percent in 1965. In places like New York City, which has used a combination of steep taxes on cigarettes and bans on smoking in most places to discourage smokers, the decline is even greater, down to 14 percent. New York Times, February 5, 2014
Today CVS announced it will stop selling tobacco products in its stores. While this change will take some time to implement, CVS’s decision is another milestone in the slide of tobacco. Fifty years ago–when Surgeon General Luther Terry released the first report of the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health--tobacco seemed to command an unassailable perch in American culture.
After all, what would American history and culture be without tobacco? Just think of the images: the peace pipe passed from Massasoit to Pilgrim leader John Carver, the cigar lodged in US Grant’s defiant maw, the cigarette precariously dangling from James Dean’s lower lip, the wrinkled rough handsomeness of the Marlboro Man.
Nonetheless, common sense has prevailed, and smoking has declined precipitously since 1964.
Here’s an vignette that helps me remember tobacco’s bygone era: I’m in Dad’s car (c. 1975), sitting in the front (whiplash) seat. The interior is an aquarium of blue tobacco smoke. Dad might mercifully crack the window a bit to give us whippersnappers a little fresh air, but this blue-smoke scene seemed normal for those days, like riding bikes without helmets and playing Chicken with the cars zooming down my street.
And here’s recent data that speaks of a changed world: The 2011 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) stats say that 18% of high school students smoke, while 19% of adults do. These are the lowest percentages recorded in the CDC’s regular studies of tobacco use.
Now I’m not so naive as to think that the tobacco companies are going to
raise the white flag. I’m sure they’ll doggedly fight this as long as it’s possible (and profitable). But I do see tobacco going the way of slavery, male-only suffrage, and segregation–history.