Two questions re pr-1964 smoking health hazard awareness

Today, the serious health hazards of smoking are common knowledge. In the past, however, smoking was a very common, if not (at certain times and among some demographics) near-universal habit (though allegedly, not “everyone” smoked in the time of old Hollywood movies, as the latter would suggest; this was apparently product placement, and there were a not insignificant number of non-smokers even in the 1950s). It is my understanding that in 1964, the US Surgeon General came out with a clear statement that smoking was harmful to health, which resulted in the current state of affairs. I would be interested in public awareness of the hazards of smoking prior to that date. Specifically, these two things:

1 - Did the average person in the first half of the 20th century sincerely believe that smoking, if not done to excess, was perfectly safe for one’s health, or did they have some level of consciousness that it was bad, perhaps lying to themselves about it? I know there were published opinions on the harmfulness of smoking before 1964, going back to the very time when smoking was beginning to be common among Europeans (in the 17th century, King James VI of Scotland/I of England published a book against smoking, in which he claimed that smoking affected basically the same organs that we know it affects today). Were those ads for cigarettes that claimed the brand in question was endorsed by doctors meant to counteract in the public mind already existent concerns about health hazards?

2 - One way or another, a lot more adults used to smoke than today. Yet if we look at the time when smoking was common, we see that people even back then were severely against smoking in the case of children. Examples from fact and fiction: 1) A reporter from ca. 1905 writes about how boy sailors in the Royal Navy are forbidden to smoke before they are 18, and describes the harsh corporal punishment administered to one teenage sailor who dared to break the rule. 2) There’s an old Oor Wullie comic (Oor Wullie, I.E., “Our Willie” is a Scottish comic strip about a Tom Sawyer-like boy) where Wullie’s father points out another boy smoking, telling Wullie that he is not to imitate his example. Wullie tries to convince the boy not to smoke, but one thing leads to another, the other boy manipulates the cigarette into Wullie’s hands; a lady tells on Wullie, and Wullie’s father ends up taking him into a shed and thrashing him. 3) Similarly in the 1949 Donald Duck short “Donald’s Happy Birthday”, Donald’s nephews try to earn money to buy him a cigar box as a birthday present. Donald gets suspicious as to why they want money, spies on them, and sees they are buying a cigar. He flies into an uncontrolled rage and forces them to smoke the entire box, and only when he has smoked them to an inch away from death does he read their happy birthday message inside the box and realize that the box was meant for him! So my question: whence this severe double standard? Why did it use to be A-OK for an adult to smoke, but not for a child? Was it because people thought it was safe for an adult to smoke, but unhealthy if you started early? Or because, deep down, people knew it was a bad habit, and didn’t want people beginning it too early? Or because they didn’t want to end up paying for their child’s addiction? Or was it simply a matter of propriety (just like how, before the 1920s it wasn’t really considered proper for women to smoke)?

All I can tell you is that some doctors actually endorsed various cigarette brands in the early 20th century. I’ve seen the ads. No doubt they can be found online.

Smoking was discouraged for children because (imho) a) it cost money and gave only pleasure (so it was morally bad for children like many other things) and b) smoking was considered an adult activity and children engaging in prematurely mature activities was xonsideres low-class.

I believe this was the case. Advertising may have told smokers what they wanted to hear, but everyone could see that smoking caused wracking coughs and was correlated with lung diseases.

Air pollution was a lot worse back then, particularly in places where coal and oil furnaces were common, and cars burned leaded gasoline (and when you checked your oil every time you filled up to see just how much your car was burning.) A few cigarettes here and there was no big deal.

For kids, smoking was seen as a bad habit, expensive, smelly and nasty. But despite our parents’ warning us that it would stunt our growth, it was pretty hard for them to take a moral high ground when they were buying a carton of smokes every week.

My parents grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, and they both started smoking in their teens because all the kids did back then at their school. Nobody thought it was healthful to smoke, kids would sometimes have coughing fits, but they weren’t told it was unhealthy for them and smoking was cool. Most movie stars and other role models smoked. When my dad went into the Army in WWII, he said cigarettes were given to soldiers as part of their rations. Those soldiers that didn’t smoke would trade ciggies for other rations, like a chocolate bar. They said in 1964 it came as a surprise how harmful smoking really was for people. Of course, lots of doctors smoked at that time which sent a mixed message.

I get the impression it was like caffeine today
We know caffeine isn’t great for us, and there are certainly people who go to great lengths to limit their exposure to it; drinking a lot of caffeine, and especially energy drinks, is certainly seen as not good for you, but it has a air of edgy sophistication and recklessness to it. We generally try to limit kids’ access to caffieje, and certainly to energy drinks, from a sense that they are especially unhealthy when you are still growing.

No one thinks caffiene is healthy, but if the surgeon general announced tomorrow it was killing us, we’d be pretty shocked.

When I was in school (that is pre-1962) when a friend wanted to bum a cigarette off of me, he would often ask for a cancerette. I think we were quite knowledgeable about smoking and lung cancer. But I don’t think we knew much about any connection with heart disease or any other disease. The Surgeon General’s report was something of a surprise. Incidentally, the cost of cigarettes, at 25c a pack, were not that much of a consideration in those days.

One brand, I think it was Camel, advertised that 90% of doctors smoked their brand. They generated this stat, I was told, by sending a carton of cigarettes to 1000 doctors and if 100 returned them concluded that the other 900 smoked their brand.

I’m not sure if he coined the term “coffin nail,” but I do remember reading the term in an O. Henry short story.

One of my favorite housework-accompaniment YouTubers, Knowing Better, did an episode on the tobacco industries’ efforts to quash any reports of health hazards; reports which seem to go well back into the 19th C.

I was going to bring up the early origins of the term “coffin nails” myself. It really goes way back.

People knew. I mean they knew that cigarettes were bad for ones health practically since they were put on the market.

The tobacco companies had a lot of influence and a lot of marketing so smokers could delude themselves into thinking maybe they weren’t that bad. But the basic data was there and widely known long before the Surgeon General’s report. The latter just made it “official” in some sense. It tied all the links together, etc.

There was active obfuscation of the dangers of cigarettes. In fact, the addition of filters to cigarettes was done as a supposed method of eliminating health concerns.

For example, from 1953:

Regarding the ad that claimed the A.M.A. had done testing supportive of Kent cigarettes in 1953:

1953 was the year that the A.M.A. banned tobacco ads in its journal (JAMA) and at A.M.A. conventions.

And while many physicians smoked (my father included*) and some were slow to make the connection between smoking and serious illness, others were pioneers in establishing smoking harms, and the physician smoking rate dropped markedly during the 1950s.

Those doctors portrayed in cigarettes ads? They were actors. Cite:

Cigarettes were once ‘physician’ tested, approved.

*thankfully he quit after a couple decades of smoking, but had a couple of ailments that were likely smoking-related.

Menthol cigarettes were another variation that was originally marketed as a “healthier” option.

The term coffin nails dates back to the 1880s, long before O. Henry. And The Anti-Cigarette League of America was founded in 1899.

But that was also the time that Prohibition was becoming a national power. And just before wars on other drugs lead to the Food and Drug Act of 1906 and other more specific laws. People talk about how wonderful it must have been to have lived in the days of fresh food, but the reality was that almost everything put into or onto your body in that era was either bad for you in the short- or long-term or was so contaminated that it could kill even if the basics were healthy.

The issue with pinpointing public awareness of a problem is that everything was at one time or another labeled a Problem. Not just an annoyance or a poor choice, but a capital “P” Problem that had to be battled to the last dregs. Some of these turned out to be actual capital P Problems. Many did not. Many were the province of cranks that sound horrifying today. Just about everything connected with sex is a prime example.

The Doughboys appear to have brought the cigarette habit back from France after WWI and that took off. It’s no coincidence that woman started smoking regularly just at the time that people were yelling about the evils of alcohol: if you flouted one prohibition you were very likely to flout the other no matter what certain authorities claimed.

When everybody shares the same vices, it takes a shift in generations to downplay them.

Note that cigarettes were banned in fifteen U.S. states in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Some interesting early history:

A Historical Review of Efforts to Reduce Smoking in the United States

Richard Doll published in 1950 a landmark paper that outlined a clear link between smoking and lung cancer.

He performed follow up studies sending questionnaires to all the UK GPS.

The first 10 year study alone was damming.
Nice summary of Dolls work:

So 1950 is a good start to it, and by 1960 serious evidence.

There’s was plenty of awareness of health issues related to smoking. At the same a large percentage of the population smoked. Smoking is addictive and stopping is difficult to do, so people will pretend the health issues don’t exist. It’s as simple as that.

(Emphasis mine)

Do you mean the sputtering and coughing that usually happen the first time someone tries to smoke, or are you referring to a chronic smoker’s cough?

People had been calling cigarettes “coffin nails” for generations before 1964, so there was obviously some awareness, but contrariwise also the common notion that the harm would be minimal if you didn’t smoke to excess.

I haven’t seen the early 20th century ads in which doctors advocated smoking as beneficial, but later in the century there was at least one major ad campaign in which cigarettes were “proven” to be practically harmless. This was a Chesterfield ad which proclaimed that an independent doctor had found no harmful effects on the mouth, nose, sinuses, and throat of their test subjects after smoking Chesterfields for a year, or something like that. Of course the lungs were conveniently left unmentioned, but even if they hadn’t been, the lungs probably would have looked fine as well. They didn’t have the science back then to realize that it took years to build up in the lungs.

Some of the early ads touting cigarettes as beneficial to health weren’t necessarily hawking tobacco cigarettes. An herb with the curious name cubeb used to be rolled into cigarettes and smoked as an asthma remedy. Even cannabis cigarettes were sold for medical use, to treat anything from nausea to coughs.

Just a note that most of the discussion in this thread is implicitly US-centered, and should be considered in that light. For example, in Greece, approximately 30% of men (15 and up) smoke every day, while the equivalent rate in the US is just under half of that.

Also, I’m not sure awareness and common knowledge have a lot to do with it. For example, here is a typical cigarette package in Greece.

The text reads, basically, “smoking blocks your arteries,” accompanied by a brutal autopsy photo.

So I would question the idea that people smoke because they disagree with the health warnings and think it’s actually safe. I think they are consciously aware of the warnings but there’s a more subtle cognitive failure that leads them to ignore the risk. It’s not that people reject the science and substitute a different belief, it’s that human information-processing mechanisms simply don’t work very well and people make a choice despite what they “know.”