I went to my favorite pen shop in downtown Washington the other day to buy some ink, and on reflecting that the act of riding the subway to buy a bottle of ink had a certain antediluvian quality, I was seized with a very antediluvian idea. I decided that I wanted to buy a pack of cigarettes as well; in fact, I wanted to buy the very brand—Camels, unfiltered—that I had smoked in my youth.
Like many ex-cigarette smokers, I can recall the exact date (August 18, 1978) when I quit—although I have to admit that I did so only at the behest of the alluring woman who became my wife, and that quitting was not very difficult. The explanation, I suppose, is that I was not especially devoted to cigarettes: I had started comparatively late, while in college, and smoked only when drinking coffee or alcohol. I was not the sort of person, like one unfortunate roommate, who lit up upon awakening in the morning. And when I had a cold, or was suffering a periodic bout of asthma or bronchitis, smoking was abhorrent to me.
Of course, the fact that an asthmatic—with a family history of cancer—had taken up smoking at all is testament to the irrationality of my habit. There was an element of adolescent rebellion involved: In the time-honored fashion of dogmatic left-wingers, both my parents strongly condemned the practice of smoking, but were smokers themselves. Since I tended to disappoint them in most things, or so I must have reasoned, I might as well take up smoking. And annoy them in the process.
Already that had taken the form of a childhood fascination and delight in the marketing of cigarettes. I might well be one of the few people in America who remember cigarette advertising with affection. I was genuinely aggrieved when tobacco commercials were banned from television (1970). Come to think of it, that sad occasion might have prompted me to get started.
From my perspective, anyway, the advertising was pure entertainment: The qualities extolled in television commercials—smoothness, mildness, mentholated flavor, and so on—meant nothing to me; but the wonderful ways in which smoking was described, extolled, glamorized—a little like the automobile advertising of the era—was hypnotic in its self-evident silliness. I quickly specialized in what MAD magazine called cigarette geography: I knew that Kents contained a filter made with “micronite,” whatever that is, while Parliament’s filters were recessed, for whatever reason. Best of all, of course, were the jingles—give me a piano and I’ll happily play my version of “Take a puff, it’s springtime” (Salem) or “Come up to the Kool taste”—and the no-doubt-deliberately ungrammatical slogans: “Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch” or “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.”
Some of the slogans, indeed, became catch phrases in their time: Viceroy’s, for instance, which featured “the thinking man’s filter and the smoking man’s taste,” was subject to innumerable variations, and kept more than a few comedians busy. And during the late 1960s/early ’70s, the marketing of one brand, Virginia Slims, exclusively to women gave birth to a cringeworthy phrase still heard in the land: “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
I recount all this partly as an exercise in nostalgia, but also as a means of describing the extent to which cigarette smoking, not so very long ago, was a larger part of the popular culture. Nowadays, of course,
smoking is very nearly taboo, and smokers are long since banished from places—offices, stadiums, restaurants, airplanes, even bars—where they used to congregate in high numbers. Like the men in bow ties who filled your tank with gasoline and cleaned the windshield—and checked the oil and battery, if desired—they’ve gone away, I am not sure where.
In my own case, I quit cigarettes overnight and, except for the occasional cigar, have never smoked since. Which is just as well, for in the half-hour it took me to walk back to my office, I could not find a pack of unfiltered Camels to purchase. My father’s old tobacconist, on 15th Street, is now shuttered, and the largest drugstore chain in the region ostentatiously stopped selling tobacco last month. Newsstands were no help, nor were the handful of hotel gift shops I visited.
Indeed, over the weekend, my quest continued, and to no avail. Most revealing, I suppose, is the fact that I did manage to find Camels for sale in a couple of places, but only the filtered variety. When I inquired if, perhaps, they stocked Camels without filters, the clerks were uncertain whether such a product exists—and looked at me as if to say: What sort of person would want such a thing?