When Science Was Smoking Hot

Chesterfields ad, 1952

Today, November 20, is the American Cancer Society’s 33rd Great American Smokeout. Now, be honest: did you even know?

The Smokeout doesn’t seem to get as much attention as it used to, perhaps because the link between cigarette smoke and cancer is no longer surprising or controversial. After decades of anti-tobacco campaigns hammering the research home, no media-conscious American could plausibly believe that cigarettes are actually good for his or her health. Yet this is a sea change from attitudes in the first half of the 20th century, when cigarettes’ health benefits and modern scientific merits were the centerpiece of many an ad campaign, and cigarette sales were buoyed by the great public respect for engineering, science and medicine. After all, if a rocket scientist smokes Viceroys, who are you to demur?

Viceroy ad, 1959
Artist: Slayton Underhill

Pseudoscientific nonsense permeated cigarette advertising throughout the twentieth century. Lucky Strike extolled the virtues of “America’s Finest Cigarette Laboratory.” A Philip Morris ad promised that its tobacco was both “pasteurized for your protection” and “Thermo-vized for better taste.” And Chesterfield trumpeted the benefits of its “Accu-Ray:” “Scientific miracles never cease! Now see what modern electronics have done to increase your cigarette enjoyment!”


From our modern perspective, these ads are full of red herrings – information that has nothing to do with the carcinogenic or addictive properties of cigarettes. For example, an ad from Old Gold cited the “New York Testing Laboratories”:

The Verdict of Science

This is to certify that in 75 repeated tests made of four leading cigarette brands. . . measuring the heat content of each cigarette using the Calorimeter method. . . it was shown that OLD GOLD is from 112 to 156 BTU/lb COOLER than the other brands.

Um, why are we using calorimetry to assess cigarette smoke!? The numbers might make a smoker feel safer, but they have little to do with, say, cancer.

Some cigarette makers tried to create a niche for themselves as the least cigarette-like cigarette. King Sano promised less tar and less nicotine (without ever admitting that tar and nicotine were bad, mind you) in this data-heavy ad, which eerily prefigures the American Legacy Foundation’s Truth Campaign:


With their abuse of science, misleading data, and invention of pseudoscientific terminology, cigarette ads weren’t all that different from, say, shampoo ads (which also often claim to be fresh, clean, and good!). Such techniques are common in marketing. But while the health consequences of buying a supposedly space-age shampoo are minimal, cigarette ads were tragically misleading. For example, Kent’s “Micronite Filter” – the one preferred by “scientists and educators” – contained asbestos. Smokers trying to be healthier by choosing filtered cigarettes (which supposedly reduced their intake of tar) ended up inhaling millions of asbestos fibers without ever knowing it.


And this Camels ad suggested that if smoking was burning or stinging your throat, well, then you should smoke more:


This ad was just one of many featuring doctors. Nurses and dentists got in the act, too. In fact, health-oriented ads were so prevalent that Old Gold mounted an ad campaign based entirely on the company’s maverick refusal to make any “old-hat medicinal claims.” “For a treat instead of a treatment,” the ads invited, “smoke Old Golds”! One of these ads features a totally hypocritical addendum: “No other cigarette is less irritating, or easier on the throat, or contains less nicotine than Old Gold. Who says this? Not Old Gold. This conclusion was established on evidence by the United States government.” Apparently Old Gold wanted to cover their bases, just in case you did want those “old-hat medicinal claims” after all!

In some cases, cigarette manufacturers avoided tricky wording and data entirely, opting for simple visual associations linking their product to space age technologies – like this French Philip Morris ad:


Or Benson and Hedges, who envisioned aliens as the next big market for their product:


The space alien market. . . a sign of desperation?

Unfortunately, not so much. Although tobacco consumption has declined in the US over the past few decades, more than 40 million Americans still smoke. According to the CDC, a quarter of high school students smoked at least one cigarette in the past month. And worldwide, the market for tobacco is growing.

These ads may seem dated and ridiculous, but cigarettes aren’t going away. And somewhere in the world, right now, you can bet that science is being misused to promote smoking.

If you are in the NYC area, you can see many of these posters at an NYPL exhibition running through the end of December.

For the rest of you, Dr. Robert Jackler of the Stanford University Medical School has created a wonderful website, “Not a Cough in a Carload,” from which I’ve pulled the ad images in this post. It’s an eye-opening look at the advertising practices of an industry whose position in society has changed profoundly in the last half-century. Dr. Jackler and his team really deserve a round of applause for this website.


  1. #1 Warren
    November 20, 2008

    Despite the vileness of product itself, you’ve got to admit some of those ads are actually rather well-done.

  2. #2 Chris Bowers
    November 20, 2008

    Great Post!

  3. #3 bioephemera
    November 20, 2008

    Absolutely they’re well-done – the Stanford gallery is full of great designs. The Slayton Underhill astronomer ad in particular is really stunning art!

  4. #4 michael5000
    November 21, 2008

    Awesome tour. Somewhere around here, I’ve got a great old cigarette add with a testamonial from a track star, who swears by his cigarette brand to give him pep and calm his pre-race jitters. You don’t see much pre-race smoking at the track these days….

  5. #5 Jan-Maarten
    November 21, 2008

    Amazing.. The absolute white teeth of the lady-of-dancing-cigarettes, so typical of the long term addict! I also like how scientists suddenly look like sports heroes instead of elderly gentlemen who forget to shave on a regular basis. Nice!

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