Tim Giago: Another nail in the coffin of smokers
Most Americans, and I am sure the chief executive officers of the major tobacco manufacturing plants, knew that smoking was not good for your health more than 50 years ago.

I can remember hearing the comment, “Here’s another nail in your coffin,” as someone handed you a cigarette, many years ago.

In 1947, 62 years ago, Merle Travis wrote a song that was adopted by Tex Williams. Here are some of the lyrics:

“Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette; puff, puff, puff until you smoke yourself to death; tell St. Peter at the Golden Gate, that you hate to make him wait; but you just gotta have another cigarette.”

Tex Williams followed in the trail of the famous Marlboro Man: he also died of lung cancer. “Tex” was a two-pack-a-day man. But even a horrifying anti-smoking commercial by the late Yul Brynner, shot after he died of lung cancer, could not and did not, slow down the rush to buy another pack of cigarettes.

In the commercial Brynner, still looking somewhat healthy, says, “Now that I’m gone, I tell you: Don’t smoke, whatever you do, just don’t smoke.”

The commercial by the American Cancer Society was aired in 1986, shortly after Brynner’s death.

Fifty or sixty years ago, no one in a position of authority, not doctors or the tobacco industry, told us that smoking could cause lung cancer and other deadly illnesses. There were television shows totally sponsored by cigarette companies. There was “Your Hit Parade” with Snooky Lanson and Gisele McKenzie. And the show was filled with commercials featuring Lucky Strike Cigarettes.

The Camel News Caravan was anchored by John Cameron Swayze and ran from 1949 to 1956. One of the favorite bits of commercial advice on the show was, “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.”

I started smoking at the Catholic Indian mission boarding school on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the 1940s. Back then it was a rite of passage. You were allowed to smoke once you started high school, which was the ninth grade. You became a “big guy” when you reached that grade.

The cigarettes of choice were those rolled on cigarette paper and filled with Bull Durham tobacco. The cigarettes Americans dubbed, “Tailor Made” didn’t come along until a few years later. Of course “Tailor Made” simply meant that the cigarettes had filters or were machine rolled. We thought we were real cool with the tag and string from a Bull Durham pack hanging from our shirt pocket.

Tobacco was a crop cultivated by Native Americans centuries before the arrival of the white man. It was used primarily in spiritual gathering and was smoked in a ceremonial pipe, a pipe that was misnamed “Peace Pipe” because, as a spiritual offering, it was used at important ceremonies including at talks of peace. In the Indian way, the act of smoking the pipe at the end of a meeting was an indication that the deal had been sealed and the pipe was the spiritual conclusion.

Millions of Americans got hooked on smoking when they joined the U. S. Armed Forces. When I served, I could buy a pack of cigarettes at the PX for 10 cents. A carton cost $1.00. When we shipped out for overseas we were often given two or three free cartons. And taking a “smoke break” was a significant part of the day in the military. When a soldier was sitting in a fox hole with death just over the next ridge, a long drag on a cigarette did a whole lot to ease the tension. No one told that soldier he was endangering his life with that cigarette.

And, of course, the movies did much to romanticize cigarette smoking. There was a scene in one movie where the hero takes two cigarettes from the pack, places both of them in his mouth and lights them simultaneously. He then removes one from his mouth and places it between the lips of his girl friend. When we were teenagers, I think most of us tried to duplicate this little trick, too often discovering that the cigarettes had a tendency to stick to your lips. Romance flew out of the window when the cigarette tore your lip and it started to bleed.

I give my employees at Native Sun News a smoke break in the morning and one in the afternoon. They have to smoke outside because it is not allowed in the office. And since I have been a non-smoker for a very long time, as I see them heading out for their smoke break, I cannot help but wonder if they realize the danger they are courting or I wonder what pleasure they can get from something that may eventually kill them. It’s a curious thing.

But they won’t quit.

Many states now have anti-smoking laws and we seem to be moving, as a Nation, in that direction. But we are facing the same situation confronting the gun lobby: “When guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns.” Can the same be said in defense of cigarettes? Here’s another nail in your coffin!

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the publisher of Native Sun News. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association, the 1985 recipient of the H. L. Mencken Award, and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. Giago was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2008. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com.

More Tim Giago:
Native Sun Editorial: Mascots are not an honor (9/22)
Tim Giago: Leaving the anger and the meanness (9/21)
Tim Giago: Indian Reorganization Act turns 75 (9/14)
Tim Giago: They could not kill Lakota spirituality (9/7)
Tim Giago: Don't take IHS criticism at face value (8/31)
Tim Giago: Coffee and bagels with Tim Johnson (8/24)
Tim Giago: Real problems of US health care (8/17)
Tim Giago: Sotomayor puts dent in glass ceiling (8/10)
Tim Giago: Standing ground at Mount Rushmore (8/3)
Tim Giago: Voting Native and voting independent (7/27)
Tim Giago: Rapid City is changing for the better (7/20)
Tim Giago: Frontier mentality still alive in 2009 (7/13)
Tim Giago: The execution of Chief Two Sticks (7/6)
Tim Giago: McDonald's mentality needs revamp (6/29)
Tim Giago: National health care debate and IHS (6/22)
Tim Giago: South Dakota restricts tribal growth (6/15)
Tim Giago: No more status quo for BIA education (6/8)
Tim Giago: Being Indian and being independent (6/1)
Tim Giago: Let Oglala Sioux president do her job (5/27)
Tim Giago: Memorial Day speech at Black Hills (5/25)
Tim Giago: Small victories in battle against mascots (5/18)
Tim Giago: A day of tribal victory at Little Bighorn (5/11)
Tim Giago: Negative Native images in the news (5/4)
Tim Giago: Resolving ownership of the Black Hills (4/27)
Tim Giago: Good things and bad things come in April (4/20)
Tim Giago: An open letter to South Dakota governor (4/13)
Tim Giago: Nostalgia and South Dakota blizzards (4/6)
Tim Giago: An older brother who paved the way (3/30)
Tim Giago: Sticks and stones and Charles Trimble (3/17)
Tim Giago: Pine Ridge team triumphs at tournament (3/16)
Tim Giago: Announcing the Native Sun News (3/9)
Tim Giago: No winners at Wounded Knee 1973 (3/5)
Tim Giago: The real victims of Wounded Knee 1973 (3/2)
Tim Giago: No outrage over abuse of Natives (2/23)
Tim Giago: A perspective on the fairness doctrine (2/16)
Tim Giago: Throwing Tom Daschle under the bus (2/9)
Tim Giago: Native people out of sight, out of mind (2/2)
Tim Giago: Native veteran loses fight against VA (1/26)
Tim Giago: The Wellbriety Journey for Forgiveness (1/19)
Tim Giago: The stolen generations in the U.S. (1/12)
Tim Giago: Indian Country looks to Tom Daschle for help (1/5)