'Flashback' Lecture Notes: Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em - OZY | A Modern Media Company

'Flashback' Lecture Notes: Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em

SourceGetty Images, Composite by Ned Colin

'Flashback' Lecture Notes: Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em

By Sean Braswell


Because the history of smoking is a wild ride.

By Sean Braswell

Dear Flashback Listeners,

In episode 2 of Flashback, a new podcast from OZY, I tell you about a tale of good intentions gone horribly wrong.

It starts during World War I, when the YMCA starts to hand out cigarettes to soldiers. They want to make their struggle more manageable. Instead they create an army of new addicts — addicts increasingly willing to fork over millions of their hard-earned dollars to the tobacco companies that make the cigarettes, and the governments that tax them. The rash of new, and unevenly applied, cigarette taxes will present everyone from local smugglers to Native American reservations to global terrorist groups with an irresistible profit opportunity.

Help US Help Our Boys YMCA poster

A World War I YWCA poster by Haskell Coffin.

Source Getty


I pulled together some of the more striking visuals from my archival research so you can enjoy some of the images that accompany this week’s story:

German soldier giving a British soldier a light.

Two wounded soldiers at a British field hospital in France in 1918 during World War I. A German soldier lights a cigarette for a British soldier.

Source Getty

What could be more refreshing? Advertising cigarettes on television has been illegal in the U.S. since 1970, when President Richard Nixon signed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act. But before that, it was often entertaining. Check out these television commercials from the heyday of cigarette advertising in the 1960s, pulled together by Tim Romano on YouTube. 

A soldier’s best friend: Want to enjoy some classic photographs of soldiers and their smokes? Check out Kay Kensington’s collection on Pinterest


Cigarette tax authority Thomas Hall told me in our interview about what a difference one key invention also made to cigarettes: the rolling machine, developed in 1880 by a Virginia inventor named James Bonsack. Listen to the extra footage of our interview from the cutting-room floor by clicking below:


Here are some hidden stories from history, uncovered by OZY, related to this week’s topic: 

The Fight to Ban Smoking on Flights: Remember when you could smoke on an airplane? Once upon a time, the right, as John F. Kennedy put it (in another context), “to breathe air as nature provided it” was far from a given.

Transocean Air lines 377 Stratocruiser

Passengers on a Transocean Airlines flight enjoy a relaxing smoke in the mid-1950’s.

Source Getty

The Cigarette Company That Reinvented Television News: We’re used to podcast hosts like me reading ads, but can you imagine a nationally televised news anchorman — that paragon of public trust and gravitas — telling viewers to smoke ’em if they’ve got ’em? Well, that’s what happened with NBC’s Camel News Caravan, which debuted in 1949 and helped launch the anchorman and the broadcast journalism endeavor we know today.


Should the NFL Come with a Surgeon General’s Warning?

Before the Surgeon General’s 1964 report on the harms of smoking — and resulting warnings — cigarettes were widely enjoyed, especially by teenagers. America’s favorite harmful pastime today? Football. Studies suggest that up to 15 percent of football players may suffer a mild traumatic brain injury — and teenage players may suffer almost 2 million brain injuries — every year.

At OZY Fest in 2018, I asked author Malcolm Gladwell, who has written a lot about head injuries in football, what he thought about adding a Surgeon General’s warning to football. He told me it might be “useful,” observing that:

“People are playing football at a time in their life when they are predisposed to ignore warnings. When we think of ourselves as invulnerable. If football was a game played by 50-year-olds, it would not exist. … In that situation you need some kind of intervention.”

What do you think?  Is it time to give Big Football the Big Tobacco treatment? Let me know your thoughts by emailing me at flashback@ozy.com.

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