Excerpted from the The Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society’s online exhibition, “Like father, like son: Smoking as family tradition.” 

I could well have been that freckle-faced little boy on the sign handing a carton of Chesterfield cigarettes to his dad.  My father, who had been a high school track and field athlete, started smoking Chesterfield cigarettes as a medical student.

By the time he served in the Army in World War II, he was smoking up to two packs a day. This was a decade before epidemiologists and pathologists confirmed in the 1950s that smoking caused heart disease (see the Center’s exhibition “‘Tobacco Heart!’ Smoking and Cardiovascular Health.”) As a result of his ever-present cigarette, he suffered a heart attack in 1953 at age 44 (when I was just 5) and died at age 60.

On the whole, the pharmaceutical industry not only looked the other way when it came to smoking, but at least one company, Merck Sharp and Dohme, encouraged it by sending personally embossed matchbooks to physicians with ads for its new antihypertensive medications, DIURIL (chlorothizaide) and HYDRODIURIL (hydrochlorothiazide). Other companies depicted smoking patients in their ads, recommending medications for the conditions caused by smoking, rather than trying to aid physicians in prevent these diseases by educating the public not to smoke (see the Center’s exhibition “Depictions of Smoking in Pharmaceutical Advertising“).

One of my father’s passions was rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and in 1956 as we were watching a game on WOR-TV, he suggested that I use our new Webcor audio tape recorder to save examples of the endless commercials for Lucky Strike cigarettes, one of the team’s sponsors. “One day, no one will believe that sports was used to promote smoking,” he predicted. This was the origin of the Center of the Study of Tobacco and Society.

You can view the Lucky Strike billboard in right field at the Dodgers’ stadium, Ebbets Field, in a video clip from the pregame TV show, “Happy Felton’s Knothole Gang,” in which Jackie Robinson tosses grounders to a little leaguer. And you can listen to the play-by-play of the final inning of a Dodger game in 1956 in which pitcher Sal Maglie is throwing a no-hitter and Dodger announcer Vin Scully is pitching Lucky Strikes.

Throughout the 20th century and to the present day, millions of fathers have died from heart disease, emphysema, and lung cancer due to smoking, even as the tobacco industry denied that their products could even cause a cough.  Meanwhile, cigarettes were advertised on billboards in sports stadiums, on displays in stores, on TV and radio until banned from the airwaves in 1971, and then increasingly in newspapers and magazines and at entertainment venues.

Whether in the form of cigarettes, cigars, or spitting tobacco, nicotine is a frequently fatal addiction that the tobacco industry has always downplayed. As if the public hasn’t learned the lessons of history, the major e-cigarette makers today—none other than Marlboro-maker Philip Morris and KOOL’s British American Tobacco—are reeling in a new generation of addicts by assuring them that their sleek new heated nicotine inhalers will cause much less harm than cigarettes (and look even more glamorous and adult). But we must keep in mind that these companies haven’t offered to pull their cigarettes from the market and that cigarettes still account for nearly 90% of their profits. This is an industry that desperately wants to keep us hooked on nicotine in any form, because it’s hooked on making money at all costs.

This exhibition recalls an era not very long ago when a son giving his dad a gift of a carton of cigarettes was as American as apple pie. The first celebration of a day to honor fathers took place in Spokane, Washington YMCA on June 19, 1910, at the urging of Sonora Smart, whose father had raised her and five siblings. In the 1930s she began promoting the idea across the country–with the assistance of the manufacturers of ties, pipes, and other traditional gifts for dads. By the 1940s, the tobacco industry was encouraging wives and children to give dad a carton of cigarettes for Father’s Day. In 1966, President Lyndon Baines Johnson issued a proclamation designating the third Sunday in June as Father’s Day. (Source: The 1995 book Consumer Rites: The Buying & Selling of American Holidays by Leigh Eric Schmidt).

View the full online exhibit on the Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society website.