Puff, Puff, Puff
Poet Anne Sexton called cigarettes her “passionate habit.” She’s not the only smoker to have felt that way. Everyone everywhere must know now that cigarettes kill. And that still doesn’t stop one billion people, worldwide, from lighting up. How can that be? It’s easy to blame the tobacco companies’ deceptions and nicotine’s addictiveness. But part of the reason, certainly, is that it’s all too human to love—passionately—
what you know is bad for you.
Big Tobacco, the group of companies that controls the cigarette industry domestically and internationally, got so big because its product is so addictive. Nicotine, the chief psychoactive agent in tobacco, is more habit-forming, according to some studies, than heroin—not that Big Tobacco was in any hurry to admit this. As late as 1994, in a well-publicized hearing before a U.S. House subcommittee, seven tobacco company CEOs testified under oath that they believed nicotine was not addictive. As tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand later revealed, cigarette manufacturers were at that same time manipulating cigarettes’ ingredients to increase their nicotine potency—and therefore their addictiveness.
The cigarette—shredded tobacco leaves stuffed inside a slim paper cylinder—is the perfect nicotine-delivery device; its users, unlike most pipe or cigar smokers, inhale the smoke, which enables nicotine to enter the bloodstream and cross the blood-brain barrier within seconds. Cigarettes became popular in the 19th century and were at first hand-rolled. It was James Albert Bonsack’s 1880 invention of the automated cigarette-making machine that made possible the mass production of cigarettes—and the mass addiction on which Big Tobacco’s fortunes were built.
Nowadays, thanks to antismoking legislation, ads for tobacco products are banned or restricted throughout much of the developed world. But not long ago, cigarette advertising dominated billboards, the pages of magazines, and the airwaves. In addition to running commercials, cigarette brands sponsored entire programs, including cartoons, in the early years of TV. Big Tobacco’s ads were effective and—as baby boomers can attest—memorable. Even children recognized the Marlboro Man; sang along to the ungrammatical but catchy “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should” jingle; and understood that “Lucky Strike means fine tobacco” and that loyal Tareyton smokers would, as that brand’s pugilistic slogan averred, “rather fight than switch.” Most people who smoke begin at an early age, so to maintain the market for their deadly product, cigarette makers had to entice young people to light up. The venality of Big Tobacco’s efforts to target minors was highlighted by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company’s use of Joe Camel, a hipsterish cartoon character, as the Camel brand’s mascot from 1987 to 1997. RJR denied that Old Joe (his official name) was designed to appeal to youngsters, but a public-interest campaign and threatened lawsuit ultimately forced the company to terminate Joe’s contract.
Tobacco ads explicitly preached the gospel that cigarettes are glamorous and sophisticated, but the film industry’s pro-smoking evangelism has been both subtler and more compelling. Cigarettes are essential mood-inducing props in countless film noirs and in classic love stories from Hollywood’s studio era, including Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942), starring Humphrey Bogart. It is nearly impossible to imagine Bogart without a cigarette (and drink) ready to hand, but he was hardly Hollywood’s only expert smoker: When it came to using cigarettes to convey emotion, Bette Davis was every bit as deft. In the 1950 Joseph L. Mankiewicz picture All About Eve, Davis, playing aging stage diva Margo Channing, brilliantly punctuates her gestures with a cigarette. In the earlier Davis flick Now, Voyager, cigarettes figure even more prominently; the smoking ritual practiced by Davis and her costar, Paul Henreid—he puts two cigarettes in his mouth, lights both, then hands her one—may be better than the sex these platonic lovers agree to forgo. In the film’s famous closing line, Davis might just as well have said, “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have cigarettes.”
The Virginia Slims cigarette brand was launched in 1968, hitching its wagon to the nascent women’s liberation movement. “You’ve come a long way, baby,” declared its slogan in ads that contrasted color photos of fashionable young contemporary women, cigarettes in hand, with sepia-toned images of frumps from long ago, when women’s smoking (and autonomy) had been anathema. That campaign, however, wasn’t the first effort by a cigarette maker to target women specifically—or to associate smoking and female freedom. That distinction belongs to American Tobacco, which gained market preeminence for the Lucky Strike brand (with its iconic target-emblazoned pack designed by Raymond Loewy), partly through appeals to women smokers. In 1929, PR mastermind Edward L. Bernays, working as a consultant to American Tobacco, orchestrated the “Torches of Freedom” promotional stunt, in which a group of Lucky Strike–puffing flappers brazenly strode down Fifth Avenue amid New York City’s Easter Parade. (Photographers, alerted by Bernays, snapped them for the newspapers’ rotogravures.) The Lucky Strike brand was also among the first to deploy silver-screen sirens in its magazine ads—beginning, in the 1930s, with “Blonde Bombshell” Jean Harlow, who purportedly liked Luckies so much she refused compensation for her endorsement.
People still smoke in movies, though onscreen smokers nowadays are seldom heroes—Sigourney Weaver’s cigarette-toting Dr. Grace Augustine in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) is one recent, puzzling exception. For an unapologetic celebration of a culture in which many people smoked, one must now turn to the small screen, where the characters in the AMC series Mad Men play out their dramas in smoke-filled boardrooms and bedrooms. Mad Men’s era (the first episode, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” is set in March 1960) and its nostalgic portrayal of cigarettes’ pleasures seem increasingly long ago as smoke-free workplaces, restaurants, parks and other public spaces proliferate. Cigarettes have become so marginalized it’s hard to remember that smoking was, to some degree, socially tolerated for decades following the 1960s. The 1995 film Smoke depicts a Brooklyn that looks a lot like the borough today, except in two ways: No one carries a cell phone, and virtually everybody smokes (cigars and cigarillos as well as cigarettes). Smoke doesn’t just pervade the atmosphere that Smoke’s characters breathe; it forms their milieu and provides the metaphor for understanding their meandering, haphazard lives.
Antismoking public service ads have had their effect (former smokers now outnumber smokers in the U.S.), but it’s still hard to deny that cigarette smoking is sexy—at least when the smoker is hot. For proof we need only look to a few leading men: Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski (A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951), James Dean as Jim Stark (Rebel Without a Cause, 1955), Paul Newman as Hud (Hud, 1963), Brad Pitt as J.D. (Thelma and Louise, 1991)—all sexy. Sean Connery smoking his way through the early James Bond flicks—unbelievably sexy. Would any of these actors have been as sexy without a cigarette perched between his fingers or dangling from his mouth?
If you still need convincing, take Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature film, Breathless. Belmondo’s character, small-time hood Michel Poiccard, models himself—down to the way he smokes his ever-present cigarette—on Humphrey Bogart. The film’s French title, À Bout de Souffle, means “At the End of Breath,” and Michel keeps on smoking even after he’s gunned down in the street by police. Sure, Michel’s a creep, but Belmondo—with that fat Gauloise stuck between his lush lips—is le plus sexy.
For Patricia Franchini, the young American woman played by Jean Seberg who partners with Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel in Breathless, love is like a cigarette: It burns hot and it isn’t healthy. It makes sense that Breathless, whose doomed lovers smoke relentlessly, is set to a jazz-saturated score (by Martial Solal). The association between cigarettes and jazz, especially the cool jazz of the 1950s and early ’60s played in clubs suffused with smoke, is indelible. Witness, for example, the telltale blue haze that’s always hovering around the musicians in Bertrand Tavernier’s 1986 jazz film ’Round Midnight, set in 1959.
Several great jazz standards make romantic reference to cigarettes. In Willard Robison’s “Don’t Smoke in Bed” (1947)—first recorded by Peggy Lee and exquisitely covered by Nina Simone—a lover bids a poignant farewell with the anti-inflammatory advice of the song’s title. In Sonny Burke and Paul Francis Webster’s sultry “Black Coffee” (1948)—which has been soulfully sung by Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald and k.d. lang (on Shadowland, 1988)—a woman drowns “her past regrets / in coffee and cigarettes.” Lang has also beautifully rendered what may be the best-ever jazz song about smoking, “Love Is Like a Cigarette.”
The drug called love has a paradoxical effect. It can make you feel fabulous and lousy at the same time. The drug called nicotine is likewise contradictory, able to stimulate you or calm you down. And love and nicotine are alike in another way: Both can change the wiring in your brain, enslaving you. It’s no wonder love and cigarettes have so often been paired in popular music, from Duke Ellington’s 1936 recording of “Love Is Like a Cigarette” (in the lyrics of which, love, “just like a cigarette,” leaves “ashes of regret”), to Sam Cooke’s wistful “Smoke Rings” (1963), right up through Rufus Wainwright’s wry “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” (2001), in which the singer describes his various cravings as just “a little bit deadly.” Singer k.d. lang explored virtually every gradation of the interplay between romantic dependence and nicotine addiction in her 1997 album Drag (the title a reference to both smoking and the cover photograph of lang dressed in a man’s suit), which concludes with “Love Is Like a Cigarette.” That interplay includes—as any smoker who’s ever been unluckily struck by Cupid’s arrow knows—the consolation that cigarettes can provide when an affair goes up in smoke.