Smoke Alarm

This weed will make you stupid, unemployable, and lethargic. Now it's pot. It used to be tobacco.

It makes you stupid. It turns teenagers into ne'er-do-wells and juvenile delinquents. It ruins academic performance, stifles ambition, and impairs efficiency at work. It leads to the use of other drugs. Today it's marijuana. Eighty years ago, it was tobacco, especially in the form of cigarettes.

"No boy or man can expect to succeed in this world to a high position and continue the use of cigarettes," Philadelphia Athletics Manager Connie Mack wrote in 1913. Biologist David Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford University, concurred. "The boy who smokes cigarettes need not be anxious about his future," he said. "He has none."

In 1914 the industrialist Henry Ford published The Case Against the Little White Slaver, which included condemnations of cigarettes from entrepreneurs, educators, community leaders, and athletes. Thomas Edison, who contributed to Ford's booklet, was simply repeating a widely accepted notion when he observed that cigarette smoke "has a violent action on the nerve centers, producing degeneration of the cells of the brain, which is quite rapid among boys. Unlike most narcotics this degeneration is permanent and uncontrollable."

The anti-tobacco propaganda of this period, when marijuana was still legal but cigarettes were banned in more than a dozen states, shares some prominent themes with contemporary anti-pot propaganda. Opponents of tobacco depicted cigarettes as a foreign threat to the youth of America, sapping their energy and intelligence. They described the effects of cigarettes in terms that would later be associated with the "amotivational syndrome" supposedly caused by marijuana. They claimed that smoking led to crime, brain damage, lower productivity, and narcotic addiction. In response, they urged children to make pledges of abstinence.

These similarities are especially striking because of the marked pharmacological differences between tobacco and marijuana. The parallels suggest that responses to drug use have less to do with the inherent properties of the substance than with perennial fears that are projected onto the chemical menace of the day.

This is not to say that tobacco and marijuana are harmless. The anti-cigarette movement is far more influential today than it was in 1914, mainly because of scientific evidence that has emerged since then concerning the long-term health consequences of smoking. But today's anti-smoking activists worry about lung cancer, heart disease, and emphysema, not laziness, crime, and brain damage. When they claim that smoking hurts productivity, they are thinking of the habit's effect on physical health, not its impact on ambition or intellect. Despite the continuing controversy over smoking, the concerns about mental decay and moral corruption voiced by opponents of cigarettes early in this century seem quaint and fanciful today.

When it comes to marijuana, however, those charges still ring true with many Americans. There is some basis, after all, for pothead stereotypes. People who are under the influence of marijuana most of the time, like people who are drunk most of the time, may not get good grades in school or promotions at work. But that does not mean that occasional marijuana use renders people incapable of academic or professional success, any more than an occasional drink does. The staunchest opponents of marijuana invest the drug with the power to permanently transform people, ruining their potential and turning them against society. Before we accept that notion, it's worth reflecting on the fact that people once said much the same thing about cigarettes.

Historical perspective is especially important in light of recent trends. According to government-sponsored surveys, teenage marijuana use has been rising since 1992, following a 13-year decline. In the National Household Survey, the share of 12-to-17-year-olds reporting past-month use of marijuana rose from 4 percent in 1992 to 6 percent in 1994. In the Monitoring the Future Survey, the share of high school seniors who said they had used marijuana in the previous year rose from 21.9 percent in 1992 to 34.7 percent in 1995. These figures are still well below the peak levels seen in 1979 (16.8 percent and 50.8 percent, respectively), but the increases have aroused concern among parents and educators.

Citing the survey data, drug warriors such as Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) have criticized the Clinton administration for not doing enough to suppress drug use and have called for greater emphasis on interdiction and enforcement. But the government is already arresting more people for marijuana possession than ever before, suggesting that another crackdown may not be effective. Furthermore, alcohol and tobacco use are also rising among teenagers, something that President Clinton's lack of enthusiasm for the war on drugs can hardly explain. Given the emotional resonance of pot-smoking kids, however, there is a real danger that Clinton or a Republican successor will take Hatch's advice, pushing the pendulum of drug policy back toward the hysteria of the late 1980s. In this context, the parallels between current fears about marijuana and earlier fears about tobacco are instructive. They do not demonstrate that worries about pot are entirely illusory, but they suggest that we should be wary of overreaction.

Although tobacco had been widely used by Americans since colonial times, cigarettes did not catch on until after production was mechanized in the 1880s. Per capita consumption of cigarettes rose nearly a hundredfold between 1870 and 1890, from less than one to more than 35. In 1900 chewing tobacco, cigars, and pipes were still more popular, but by 1910 cigarettes had become the leading tobacco product in the United States. Per capita consumption skyrocketed from 85 that year to nearly 1,000 in 1930.

The rise of the cigarette caused alarm not only among die-hard opponents of tobacco but also among pipe and cigar smokers (such as Edison), who perceived the new product as qualitatively different. Critics believed (rightly) that cigarettes were more dangerous to health because the smoke was typically inhaled. They also worried that boys and women would be attracted by the product's milder smoke and low price. "The cigarette is designed for boys and women," TheNew York Times declared in 1884. "The decadence of Spain began when the Spaniards adopted cigarettes, and if this pernicious practice obtains among adult Americans the ruin of the Republic is close at hand."

At first the anti-cigarette campaign, which had close ties to the temperance movement, focused on restricting children's access. By 1890, 26 states had passed laws forbidding cigarette sales to minors, but many children continued to smoke. Led by Lucy Page Gaston, a former teacher from Illinois whose career as a social reformer began in the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the anti-cigarette crusaders next insisted that complete prohibition was necessary to protect the youth of America. Between 1893 and 1921, 14 states and one territory (Oklahoma) enacted laws banning the sale of cigarettes, and in some cases possession as well. Such laws were supported by the cigar industry, which saw its business slipping away to a new competitor.

Upholding Tennessee's ban in 1898, the state Supreme Court declared that cigarettes "are wholly noxious and deleterious to health. Their use is always harmful; never beneficial. They possess no virtue, but are inherently bad, bad only. They find no true commendation for merit or usefulness in any sphere. On the contrary, they are widely condemned as pernicious altogether. Beyond any question, their every tendency is toward the impairment of physical health and mental vigor."

In contrast to contemporary anti-smoking activists, who talk almost exclusively about the habit's effect on the body, turn-of-the-century critics were just as concerned about its impact on the mind. In the 1904 edition of Our Bodies and How We Live, an elementary school textbook, Dr. Albert F. Blaisdell warned: "The cells of the brain may become poisoned from tobacco. The ideas may lack clearness of outline. The will power may be weakened, and it may be an effort to do the routine duties of life....The memory may also be impaired."

Blaisdell also reported that "the honors of the great schools, academies, and colleges are very largely taken by the abstainers from tobacco....The reason for this is plain. The mind of the habitual user of tobacco is apt to lose its capacity for study or successful effort. This is especially true of boys and young men. The growth and development of the brain having been once retarded, the youthful user of tobacco has established a permanent drawback which may hamper him all his life. The keenness of his mental perception may be dulled and his ability to seize and hold an abstract thought may be impaired."

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