As a panelist at a recent discussion following a showing of the powerful new film, “Loving,” I commented that among the two most profound changes I had seen in my nearly 70 years were what had happened with LGBT rights and marriage equality over those years—and then the fact that so many fewer of us smoke nowadays.
The audience chuckled at the second part of my quip, as I might have expected. Wisecracks topple out of my mouth unbidden, but as a former two-pack-a-day Lucky Strikes smoker, I do often reflect on America’s dramatic turning away from that baleful habit over the past 50 years.
And indeed the change has been profound. In the 1960s, 55% of men and 30% of women smoked—42% overall. Now, fewer than 18% of Americans smoke, with just 12% of Californians. Furthermore, the remaining smokers often smoke less, making it easier for them to quit as I did more than 20 years ago.
Even though smoking still causes 443,000 deaths per year—and smokers die on average 14 years earlier than nonsmokers—the death rate has tumbled over those 50 years as people have come to their senses.
But in 1965, when I went off to Columbia University, people smoked. You could still smoke on planes then. Good luck finding a place in New York City where people weren’t lighting up. A smoke-free section in a restaurant? Forget about it. A barroom, a college cafeteria, even a hospital waiting room? Don’t ask.
Even two of my freshman year professors chain smoked—right in class. One, a short, intense economics professor stood stock still in front of his classroom, lighting one “Between The Acts” brand cigarillo from the burning ember of his last as he filled the air with wisdom about the great thinkers in Western civilization.
Later in the day, my English professor would stride back and forth in front of the class, not once looking at us, wearing a red beret and flowing scarf while trailing great clouds of smoke from his aromatic French Gauloises—plenty to handle for a 17-year-old Minnesota kid still sporting a farmer’s tan.
I didn’t smoke then and hadn’t really been tempted. In high school, I had been on the wrestling team, spent most of my time with my nose firmly planted in a book, and didn’t hang out with the really cool kids who shared that guilty pleasure.
But in college, the calculus changed. A lot of my newfound friends did smoke and by my sophomore year I was bumming cigarettes from my roommate, Ed Siegel. Eddie smoked Luckies and, by god, so did I, soon ponying up maybe 25 or 30 cents for my own packs, which quickly became a part of who I was—a damn dumb part as I found out later when I spent years trying to quit.
Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette
Now, it’s all different—certainly in California where I now live. Back in the day, you showed up to someone’s home and you felt free to light up walking through the door. It wouldn’t usually occur to you to ask permission. Even if your hosts didn’t smoke, they’d point you to one of several ashtrays positioned around the house for your use.
Try that now. Try walking into a stranger’s house, pulling out that pack of Lucky Strikes, and looking around for an ashtray. You’d get a better response if you took off all your clothes—and we all know those days are long gone.
What fascinates me is how this dramatic social change took place—especially as we enter the coming dark days under President Trump and his increasingly regressive Republican cohorts, when we’re going to need deep rethinking of social norms.
We didn’t lock anyone up for smoking cigarettes. We didn’t stop and frisk them. In most cases, we didn’t fine them.
Sure, the government played a role, in working harder to prevent minors from smoking, limiting the places where smoking was allowed, and greatly increasing taxes. (Did you know a pack of cigarettes can cost $12 in New York?)
The scientific community played a pivotal role in undertaking real research to combat the tens of millions of dollars the tobacco industry spent producing junk science.
The entertainment industry was key as well. Back then, lots of people smoked on TV and in the movies. Where do you think Lauren Bacall got that husky voice? Now? Much less: “Among the 30 most-viewed primetime programs, there were nearly five instances of tobacco use per hour in 1961. By 2011, that number had plummeted to 0.29 instances per hour.”
Most insistent were the anti-smoking messages that came out from the Surgeon General and the American Cancer society, year after year, decade after decade, just pounding away with the facts and sometimes with grisly images of the damage smoking does to a human body.
But ultimately what happened is that one by one Americans decided to stop smoking, to resist starting to smoke, to encourage the people around them to quit, to counsel their kids at an early age. As a people, large numbers of us had absorbed this information that was put before us, and then we acted upon it.
Ultimately, we reaching a tipping point where cigarette smoking no longer became an accepted thing to do—or at least was a much less accepted thing—and the smoking rates tumbled along with the deaths smoking causes.
The people had moved.
Which brings me back around to the panel session following the screening of Loving, put on by the ACLU of Southern California at the Landmark Theatre in West Los Angeles.
My wife and I had attended an earlier screening of the film last fall, invited by local California State Assemblyman Chris Holden and the California Legislative Black Caucus, probably because we’re known progressive activists in this community and no doubt because we are an interracial couple.
Afterwards, we had suggested to our friends on the ACLU staff that they do something around the movie as it’s practically a public service announcement for the good the ACLU has done for American society for generations. Probably lots of other people offered similar suggestions.
Early on, there had been discussion about us appearing on a panel, as we ended up doing, but for awhile over the holidays it seemed that the idea had fallen by the wayside—or more likely I just dropped the ball with the welter of email I handle.
In any case, we were more than a bit surprised when our names were called to come up front in the directors chairs arrayed before the standing-room-only audience. With us were Loving’s director, Jeff Nichols, and the two actors who play Richard and Mildred Loving—Australian actor Joel Edgerton and Ethiopian-Irish actress Ruth Negga. With us as well were Hector Viagra, the ACLU-SoCal executive director, and MSNBC host Touré who moderated the session.
Earlier, our colleague, Ed Rampell, did a nice job reviewing the movie in “Abolishing Miscegenation: Virginia Is for Lovings” in Hollywood Progressive, so I won’t attempt a film review, other than to say that it’s beautifully done, performed by actors who don’t just play their characters but inhabit them, telling a story a new generation of Americans needs to know.
Particularly striking is the way so few people could have such a profound effect on their society. On one hand, you have Mildred and Richard Loving, two everyday Americans who had grown up in an unusual tight-knit community in rural Virginia where Blacks and Whites and Native Americans lived together—together, not just in the same vicinity. Having fallen in love, they were determined to have a family and were willing to risk imprisonment to assert that human right.
Although Mildred was inspired by the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950s and by Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, which took place where the Lovings were raising their kids since they’d been banished from Virginia, the Lovings weren’t activists, exactly, not in the way people are activists nowadays. Rather, they were two immensely courageous, stubborn individuals who were determined to build a family together, never mind differing skin shades. They weren’t going to hide. They weren’t going to run. And they would—and did—go to jail to prove it.
On the other hand, you have two very young volunteering ACLU attorneys—Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop, played by Nick Kroll and Jon Bass—who took on the Lovings’ case and stuck with it for a decade, ultimately successfully arguing the seminal Loving v. Virigina case before the U.S. Supreme Court that led to that state—and then 16 others—to abandon their miscegenation laws.
Sure, the ACLU stood behind the two lawyers, just as the Lovings’ friends and family supported them, and contributors to the ACLU played a pivotal role. But what you had with the lives the Lovings led is a case study in Margaret Mead’s famous hominem: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
The Moral Arc…
And then ultimately the point of my comment about smoking is what hasn’t changed, or not changed as much as sometimes we might think.
Sure, interracial couples are a dime a dozen these days, especially in big cities, and sure, we’re saying a heartfelt goodbye to our first black president and his glorious family, and, yes, there are lots of high-profile African Americans squarely in the public eye.
But when you look at our schools that are more segregated now than they were 50 years ago, at the always much higher unemployment rates for Blacks going back decades, at the generation of young black men and women who struggle to find reasonable jobs, at the great income and wealth disparity between black and white families, at the millions of black men and women wasting away in prison—often over mickey mouse drug charges…well, you know the drill.
Then you think that the statement Martin Luther King made famous: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” and you consider the profound step backwards fellow Americans made in electing a race-baiter and scapegoater, and you think, well, that arc must be very long indeed.
But maybe Mildred and Richard Loving can teach us a thing or two.
Editor, LA Progressive