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A society up in smoke


March 25, 2009
Alan Landers, the "Winston Man," died a few days ago. Landers, 68, who started smoking at age 9, was a longtime model for advertisements of Winston cigarettes.

Most people older than 35 remember all the ads we were bombarded with for years and years. "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should" went the little song that accompanied every Winston sales pitch on television. And there were the Salem ads, "Take a puff, and it's springtime." Or the Lucky Strike commercials: "Lucky Strike means fine tobacco." Or the little penguin that told us that Kool cigarettes were "menthol fresh." Those ads ran on almost every show on TV for years. Think about how many pharmaceutical commercials there are on TV today; at one time, they barely existed. Cigarettes were what paid for most programming, especially on the evening shows.

People my parents' age were expected to smoke and were considered "square" if they didn't. Almost everyone in the movies, including Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant and even many actresses smoked on screen. There were no "No Smoking" areas anywhere. Every restaurant, store, gas station and even government buildings were smoke-filled almost constantly, as were most homes. I didn't know how lucky I was when I was growing up. My parents were non-smokers, and our house never smelled like cigarettes.

I remember my uncles, who were smokers, telling me that I shouldn't smoke, not because it would be detrimental to my health in the long run, but that it would "stunt my growth" and I'd never be able to play basketball.

That was the only thing bad that I ever heard about cigarettes when I was young.

Tobacco companies were able to hook, at least, two or three generations on cigarettes before the government finally required them to post a small notice on one side of a cigarette pack that read, "Cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health" in the early 1960s. But the little penguin, the Lucky Strike Girl and the Winston Man kept telling us on almost every commercial that smoking was "Kool," that cigarettes with menthol tasted great and you could be just like the Winston man — good-looking, muscular and suave — if we'd only light-up a cigarette.

We know better now, and on some level, we probably knew better back then. But now, we know for sure how deadly tobacco is. And we know so much more about addiction and those with addictive personalities who have made tobacco companies multi-billionaires at the cost of millions of lives.

But they keep going and keep killing. And with their deep pockets and powerful lobbyists, it's unlikely that those we elect to protect us will ever make an effort to stop tobacco companies from preying on our young people, for it's the young ones who are the most vulnerable. The older generations are already hooked.

Our laws, if you think about it, are really screwed up. And politics have helped them get that way and stay that way. Cigarettes are legal, yet they kill more people in this country every year than all illegal drugs combined. Do we make illegal drugs off limits because they kill? If that's the case, shouldn't cigarettes suffer the same fate? Yet, you can buy them at almost every little market or gas station in the country.

Tobacco products are supposed to be illegal for those under 18 to buy. That much-needed law was put in place just a few years ago.

But last week, I saw three 12- or 13-year-old girls walking down the street in Corydon smoking cigarettes. How do they get them? Who's buying them for these kids? The laws we have in place aren't working. Just like our war on illegal drugs isn't working. There are more drugs on the street than ever. But how do we change them? How do we come up with new ideas that the tobacco companies can't find a way around? How do we protect our children from the tobacco companies? If we can just keep one generation off nicotine, we can begin to shut down the tobacco companies — the legal killers.

Alan Landers, the Winston Man, suffered through lung cancer twice, heart disease and finally cancer of the larynx, which killed him. Wayne McLaren, the Marlboro Man (remember him, on the horse, wearing the big cowboy hat?), became an anti-smoking spokesman a few years ago, just before dying of lung cancer. Janet Sackman, the Lucky Strike Girl, also became an advocate for anti-smoking efforts after losing her larynx and part of a lung to cancer.

Cigarette companies spent years hooking generations on their products and couldn't care less that they are now dropping like flies, by the thousands every year, due to the illnesses caused by smoking. Tobacco companies already own our politicians, so we can't expect help from them. But there must be something we can do to break that cycle before the next generation — our kids — are hooked and dying, also.

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