Editor’s Note: Today we’re excited to feature a Points Interview with Daniel J. Robinson the author of Cigarette Nation: Business, Health, and Canadian Smokers, 1930–1975 from the Intoxicating Histories Series at McGill-Queen’s University Press edited by Virginia Berridge and Erika Dyck. Robinson is a historian and associate professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western University in London, Ontario. He is currently researching historical tobacco use in Indigenous Canada and cigarette smoking and vaping among North American youths.
Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.
For most of the last century, bars like this were filled with cigarette smokers. So, too, were restaurants, bowling alleys, physician waiting rooms, workplaces, and countless other public and private spaces. In the early 1950s, six in ten Canadians regularly smoked cigarettes—which were touted for enhancing sociability, psychological well-being, and productivity. By then, smoking had become a key marker of self-identity and social belonging. So, my book asks, how did these smokers react to news in the 1950s that cigarettes caused lung cancer? How did the tobacco industry respond? Some smokers, mostly older men, managed to quit, but the majority carried on, and lots of new smokers joined their ranks. For decades, smokers downplayed tobacco-cancer science and viewed their own mode of smoking as less risky. The industry promoted this thinking with a strategy of “Hope and Doubt.” “Hope” came in the form of health reassurance marketing, seen, for example, with light and mild brands which smokers believed were safer. The industry promoted “doubt” with a long-running disinformation campaign that attacked the medical science linking cigarettes to cancer and other serious diseases.
What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?
The book’s key research question concerns how and why per-capita cigarette sales nearly doubled from 1950 to 1980—even while smoking-cancer news gained traction and the country’s smoking rate declined from 60 to 40 percent. More people shifted from being occasional to regular smokers during this period. But other factors mattered more. Smokers engaged in what, later psychologists would call, “motivated reasoning” to develop arguments and justifications that minimized the health risks of cigarettes. Most smokers believed they were more likely to die from a car accident than from their pack-a-day habit. As Canadians adopted “safer” cigarettes with lower tar and nicotine levels, they unwittingly smoked more, thus negating any marginal benefits. Smoking-and-cancer awareness created marketing opportunities for tobacco makers, accelerating market segmentation as women and middle- and high-income groups opted for low-yield and mild/light brands. While many of these smokers would later die from tobacco-related cancer and other diseases, the cruel irony remains that the “cancer scare” breathed new life—and marketing innovation—into a cigarette industry that had been largely monotone for decades.
What is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?
While growing up in the 1970s, I was surrounded by smoking adults. Both of my parents smoked, as did their friends and most of my aunts and uncles. As a ten-year-old, I would pick up my mom’s cigarettes from the corner store using a note. In our family, cigarette cartons served as Christmas gifts; cigarette packs lay beside cribbage boards during games; uncles blew smoke rings to the delight of nieces and nephews; and moms puffed away while watching “Happy Days” with their kids. I thought little of this at the time, but, years later, I wondered how such a state of affairs could have persisted decades after medical research had firmly linked cigarettes to cancer and other diseases. Writing this book helped me understand that my family was fairly typical in terms of how cigarettes continued to play an important role in the quotidian culture and social relations of working-class families.
I was surprised to learn how vital cigarettes were to overseas Canadian soldiers during World War Two. They received most of their cigarettes as gifts from friends, family, and organizations in Canada. Drawing on gift exchange theory, I show how these cigarettes—typically shared with other soldiers—promoted reciprocal obligations and communal values, fostering camaraderie and social cohesion in military units. This process, arguably, enhanced their fighting effectiveness. In POW camps, cigarettes co-existed in both gift-exchange and economic contexts, seen with frequent cigarette sharing among prisoners and cigarette trading with guards for better food and amenities. Cigarette procurement and smoking were sensible courses of action for Canadian soldiers.
What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?
Two things stand out. First, there should be more historical research about tobacco use in Indigenous communities in Canada. Oddly, there’s very little of that. The topic is complicated by the longstanding ceremonial and trading significance of tobacco for Indigenous Peoples. It is also a pressing public health issue since cigarette smoking rates in Indigenous communities today are often two to three times higher than those for non-Indigenous Canadians. Second, historians of epidemics (of all types), including tobacco, HIV-AIDS, and opioids, among others, can (and should) offer deeper understanding about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In the case of historical cigarette smoking, there are many parallels with COVID-19. People have routinely minimized health risks; disinformation and misinformation have become the bedfellows of epidemic disease; and governments—guided more by political calculus than proven public health measures—have responded tardily and tepidly to public health crises.
In an audio version of the book, who should provide the narration?
That’s easy. My choice is Norman Lear, the creator of All in the Family and Sanford and Son, two TV shows I loved watching in the 1970s. Lear also wrote and directed the 1971 film, Cold Turkey, about an Iowa town that tries to quit smoking for a month to win a $25 million prize from a tobacco company. It’s a hilarious romp of a film and one of only a handful of movies explicitly about smoking. Lear is 98 years old; if he’s unavailable, I’ll go with the film’s male lead, Dick Van Dyke, who’s only 95.