“If I Can’t Smoke, I Can’t Write” and Other Notes About Cigarettes

By Jack Limpert

A post two days ago mentioned that an issue of the Washingtonian in 1979, when magazines were bigger and more prosperous, had nine full-page ads for cigarettes. It drew an angry e-mail: “All the pages of cigarette ads were nothing to be proud of, as many of us who have lost relatives and friends to lung cancer or heart ailments can attest.”

Agreed, but it also should be said that the Washingtonian ran lots of stories about the dangers of smoking. One 1980 story, “Hope All Things, Endure All Things,” about a thoracic surgeon dying of lung cancer, was a finalist for a National Magazine Award and thousands of reprints were distributed by the American Lung Association.

The writer of that story, John Pekkanen, wrote other stories about the dangers of smoking, including a December 2007 article with this hed and deck:

Thank You for Smoking
While Washington is encouraging Americans to quit smoking, it has been forcing poorer nations to accept more US cigarettes—and helping cause a world-wide epidemic of health-related problems.

I always thought that 2007 article also should have been at least a National Magazine Award finalist. The question today: Is the United States government still doing its best to help American tobacco companies sell cigarettes in other nations?
Until 1985, smoking was allowed in the Washingtonian offices and more editors and writers smoked than didn’t. When talking about the old days, we often wonder what it would be like to now walk into the magazine’s offices in the “If I can’t smoke, I can’t write” days. I think we’d say, “I can’t believe that every day we breathed in all this cigarette smoke.”

One of our best writers desperately wanted to quit. He did long articles, typically taking three months on a story. For the two months of reporting, he didn’t smoke. But when it came time to write, he started again. How did he deal with the 1985 ban on smoking in the office? He wrote on weekends when hardly anyone was in the office and he could close his office door and smoke and write. Finally he gave in and quit smoking.

Ken DeCell, one of our top editors, also wanted to quit. He remembers: “My children begged me to quit smoking after my father died of lung cancer. I told them, ‘Next year.’ Eleven months later, they came to me and said, ‘Daddy, you promised to quit this year and the year is almost over.’”

We made a deal with Ken: We sent him for a week to Canyon Ranch, a spa in Arizona that offered a smoking-cessation program. We paid for the week and in return he wrote a story about the experience.

There was an added incentive: We’d sit down a year later and if  he had resumed smoking, he’d have to pay us back half of what the week cost. He didn’t have to pay.
Postscript: Mike Feinsilber asks if I smoked at the Washingtonian. No, I quit in 1957 when it seemed clear that there was a link between smoking and lung cancer. My dad had died of cancer in 1944, his brother died of cancer in 1952, and then in 1957 the U.S. Surgeon General “declared it the official position of the U.S. Public Health Service that the evidence pointed to a causal relationship between smoking and lung cancer.”

When I bought my first pack of Lucky Strikes in 1949, we were clueless about the hazards of smoking—it was a way for a 15-year-old to seem more grown up. Back then a carton of Lucky Strikes cost under $1, and the cigarette ads in magazines featured physicians in white coats endorsing one brand over another.

Smoking was very enjoyable, both the physiological kick from the nicotine and the psychological pleasure of lighting up. I didn’t want to quit, and always had empathy for writers who needed to smoke to write.

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