How Smoking Went From “Cool” to “Stinky”

How Smoking Went From “Cool” to “Stinky”

Come for the glamour, stay for the addiction. That might be the history of smoking in a nutshell. But with more and more people embracing a smoke-free lifestyle nowadays, it seems that the days of “fashionable” smoking are long gone. How did the social stigma around cigarettes evolve over centuries?

Nowadays, a growing number of people condemn smoking, often citing the possible second-hand effects, unpleasant cigarette smoke, and lingering smell. If you still haven’t – it might be time to quit. Some of the ways to do this include educating yourself on the harmful effects of cigarettes, finding a quitting buddy, or switching to smoke-free alternatives. 

As old as time

According to ​​anthropologists, indigenous populations in the Americas inhaled tobacco smoke as part of religious rituals, passed around pipes, and even rolled their own cigarettes some 10,000 years ago.

It started with Columbus

Skip to 1492, the year Christopher Columbus and his crew arrived in America, where indigenous people introduced them to the effects of tobacco. “I do not know what relish or benefit they found in it,” wrote Bartolomé de las Casas, one of the first Spanish colonisers who accompanied Columbus on his journey. But European interest in the new import grew fast, and in the 16th century, Spain and Portugal were already cultivating their own tobacco “for medicinal purposes.”

Tobacco and the aristocracy

A major breakthrough came in 1573, when tobacco was presented at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. The British aristocracy quickly fell in love with the new discovery – and soon, so did the French. In just a couple of decades, tobacco spread worldwide, and was marketed as a luxury good, an indulgence for the high society.

More affordable, still fashionable

Tobacco became much less of a luxury with the development of manufacturing and mass production in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it was still perceived as fashionable. Cigarettes, pipes, and other forms of tobacco were prevalent in art, literature, and even theatre. There was minimal stigma or criticism, rather an aura of something exceptional, elegant, and almost mystically “cool.”

The “golden age” of cigarettes

Cigarettes’ hip, artistic vibe made it into the 20th century and was further promoted by the growing tobacco and advertising industries. Health issues weren’t considered… well, an issue. In fact, doctors and nurses often advocated for smoking in advertisements, and the tobacco industry trumped any scientific concerns with its “cool” factor. Cigarettes frequently appeared in cinema and later on television, in celebrity interviews as well as fashion magazine spreads. But that was bound to change.

A 1946 print ad promoting cigarettes as the “doctor’s choice.” Photo: Todd Lappin / Flickr

21th century and the social stigma

With growing scientific evidence on the negative effects of smoking came a flurry of new regulations, bans, and above all, a major shift in public opinion. Today, virtually everyone is aware of the facts: smoking is extremely harmful, increasing the risk of developing serious cardiovascular and respiratory conditions as well as various types of cancer. According to WHO, more than 8 million people die as a result of tobacco use every year. Time to quit, don’t you think?

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