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The Smoking Gun

At the turn of the 20th century, the country’s most famous antismoking crusader was a sharp-tongued, stern-faced zealot from Chicago who nearly succeeded in achieving a statewide ban on cigarettes. Now, as a new antismoking law takes effect in Illinois, her nearly forgotten story gets a fitting coda.

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Gaston published a magazine targeted at boys and dedicated to the notion that cigarettes were evil.

Gaston’s unceasing lobbying finally won over Illinois lawmakers in 1907, when they passed a bill making it illegal to make, sell, or give away cigarettes anywhere in the state, punishable by a fine of up to $100 and 30 days in jail. The law was scheduled to take effect on July 1, 1907, and as the date approached, the Tribune declared: “Buy Your Cigarets Now.” R. M. Berlizheimer, who sold tobacco at the Chicago Stock Exchange building, sued to stop the ban, and Cook County Superior Court judge Axel Chytraus killed it on a technicality. As Chytraus pointed out, the law’s title described it as an act to “regulate” cigarettes. A law that regulates cannot prohibit, Chytraus ruled. Other sections of the law, making it a misdemeanor for children 18 and younger to possess cigarettes, stayed on the books.

Six months later, the Illinois Supreme Court sustained the decision, though chief justice John P. Hand found other faults with the law. He pointed out that the law applied to “any cigarette containing any substance deleterious to health,” including tobacco. The way Hand interpreted that clause, cigarettes made from “pure tobacco” were legal, while cigarettes “impregnated with drugs” were illegal. Berlizheimer planned to sell cigarettes made from “pure tobacco,” so the law did not apply to him, Hand wrote.

The cigarette ban never took effect, though it was not formally repealed until 1967. Fifteen states passed cigarette prohibition laws between 1890 and 1930, but none of the laws lasted. Tobacco companies fought the bills with campaign contributions and, some said, bribes. Gaston kept up the pressure for a law in Springfield, but she never came as close to success as she had in 1907. By 1917, when Gaston spoke to the Chicago City Council, aldermen seemed to regard her anticigarette sentiments as a joke. One remarked, “Why, the mayor and about half the aldermen smoke them.”

As the United States entered World War I, cigarettes came to be seen as an object of comfort for the American doughboys fighting in European trenches. Gaston opposed sending cigarettes to the soldiers, prompting a sharp rebuke from Chicagoan Jessie E. Pershing, sister-in-law of General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe. “If these boys who are offering their lives for the cause of democracy and humanity can find any comfort or solace in smoking a few cigars or cigarets [sic], for heaven’s sake why not let them smoke in peace?” Pershing told the Chicago Tribune in 1918. Some groups that had opposed tobacco use, such as the YMCA, distributed cigarettes to the front. “The war itself was far more significant than advertising or any other factor in promoting cigarettes,” Cassandra Tate wrote in her 1999 book Cigarette Wars. Some physicians even said that cigarettes had a calming effect, easing the “intense nervous strain” that soldiers faced.

Seemingly unaware that her crusade was waning, Gaston sought the Republican nomination for president in 1920, running on a platform of “clean morals, clean vote and fearless law enforcement.” Few took her seriously. Listing Gaston’s reasons for running, the magazine writer Frances Warfield noted: “She looked like Lincoln.” As it turned out, the Republican nominee that year, Warren G. Harding, was a smoker. After Gaston urged him to stop smoking, Harding agreed it was a good idea to “save the youth of America from the tobacco habit,” but he criticized the anticigarette movement’s “hypocrisy” and “deceit.”

In August 1921, the Anti-Cigarette League’s board of directors fired Gaston, saying it wanted to focus on educating children about the dangers of smoking, rather than continue to follow Gaston’s “more drastic” approach of seeking prohibition of cigarettes. “She is a good old soul, but she is too radical,” said the chairman, Frank M. Fairfield, a Chicagoan. “She doesn’t want anyone to smoke. . . . Why, she didn’t even want any of the board of directors of the league to smoke, and many of us do.”

Gaston had moved from Harvey to Chicago in the early 1900s, living at 5519 South Kenwood Avenue, in Hyde Park. In January 1924, a streetcar struck her on Halsted Street. Afterward, her hospital treatment revealed that she had throat cancer, and she died on August 20th at the Hinsdale Sanitarium.

Despite all of Gaston’s efforts, annual cigarette sales in the United States had soared from 2.5 billion at the turn of the century to nearly 80 billion when she died. Lung cancer, which had been virtually unknown, was formally recognized as a disease for the first time in 1923 and became widespread in the 1930s. Cigarette consumption continued climbing, even after the U.S. Surgeon General issued a landmark report on its dangers in 1964. Sales peaked around 600 billion in 1980 and then began to drop, as the cigarette reacquired some traces of the stigma it had carried in the early 1900s. Gaston’s crusade may have failed during her lifetime, but Brandt says, “The reality is that Lucy Page Gaston saved some lives along the way.”

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