I came of age in the era of glamorous smoking. Forty-six percent of Americans—including nearly everyone that mattered—smoked cigarettes. I gave my parents curlicued ashtrays as birthday gifts. Their friends offered each other glittery lighters. And of course, everyone in the movies was cloaked in an alluring, smoky haze. When Lana Turner, or Bette Davis, or James Dean, or Dean Martin lit up, Joe Smoe in the mezzanine wanted to be just like them.
When the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report stated that smoking causes cancer, few even knew what a Surgeon General was. Suddenly, the title was on everyone’s lips. A few people stopped smoking immediately. Most tried and failed. Smoking cessation became a cottage industry. Habits die hard.
I can recall walking MIT’s infinite corridor in 1973 and seeing the American Cancer Society’s poster, “Smoking is Very Glamourous.” The impact of the slogan and its discordant image was immediate. Yet smoking remained socially acceptable and ubiquitous. As late as 1986, the guy at the desk across from me in a major architectural firm lit up all day long. But research on second-hand smoke rallied non-smokers to action. Within three years, the firm created to a ‘smoking lounge’ alternative that soon buckled into a full-on ‘no smoking’ policy. Smokers became pariahs, marooned on the bleak sidewalks of Boston winters.
More than fifty years since the Surgeon General’s report, our societal views on smoking have come full circle. Today, only 18% of Americans smoke, less than half as many as when I was a child.
What created this tidal change? Science. And publicity. In a consumer society, saturated with advertising messages, the fact that smoking causes cancer is not enough to change behavior. It took warnings on cigarette packages and decades of public service campaigns to change our understanding that “smoking is very glamourous” is an oxymoron, if not an outright lie.
Today, gun violence is killing too many of our fellow citizens, while stirring fear in the rest of us. No amount of dead Sandy Hook first graders, Columbine high schoolers, Orlando night club revelers, or Las Vegas concert goers can move the needle of gun control. Stats alone will not create the change demanded of this crisis. We need a public health campaign to change our collective perception of guns.
A recent article it the Boston Globe opened my eyes to how we are losing this PR campaign. Smith & Wesson used to target their ads to hunters and sportsmen. Now they focus on fear, and gun sales soar.
In 1964 people were shocked, shocked, to learn that a central element of our society was killing us. It took decades to turn the glamour of smoking on its head. In 2022 we know full well that a cornerstone of our democracy—the right to bear arms—has been contorted beyond reason. We witness the deaths caused by this violence, and are only beginning to understand the psychic toll all these guns are taking on our children and our communities.
Once upon a time we thought smoking was glamourous. Now we know it only causes cancer. Today we consume a steady diet of ads that proclaim guns make us safe, even as statistics show that owning a gun only makes you more likely to die by a gun. But humans are stubborn, irrational creatures, and facts alone won’t change our behavior. We need to counter the myths with a public health campaign and change our nation’s attitudes about guns. We know how to do it; we have done it before. We can do it again.