Australia's perceptions of smoking have changed a lot since the 1950s. (Image: Shannen Findlay)

Smoked out: the changing perspectives on tobacco

The world and the way people live has changed a lot since 1950.

Tobacco – the way we use it, view it and legislate against it – is just one area where change has been significant for those who use it and the wider community, writes Shannen Findlay.

A brief history

Whare Takiari, a 70-year-old truck driver raised in New Zealand, says when he was growing up smoking was considered a normal habit to take up at a young age.

“[I recall] Mum asking me to light up a cigarette at the age of probably four … going on five. I used to light it up, puff on it and give it to her,” he says with the hint of a smile.

In 2012, at the age of 66, Whare quit smoking for the final time: “I want to get to my grandchildren’s twenty-firsts and weddings … My youngest is three.”

Tobacco smokers continued to decline through the 20th century. Graph: Shannen Findlay

“[The cigarette is] portrayed as the most evil chemical you can take into your body nowadays … but back then it was just a cigarette.”

Studies suggesting a link between smoking and lung cancer were starting to be released as early as the 1940s. But it was not until the late 1950s that the evidence was sufficient for wide-scale action.

The British Medical Journal published a report citing two probable causes for the increase of people dying from lung cancer in England and Wales.

The 1950 report suggested pollution from exhaust fumes from cars, industrial plants, coal fires and gas-works could have been reasons for the increase in deaths from lung cancer.

The other possible suggested cause was the smoking of tobacco. Several doctors had found that a large portion of people dying from lung cancer were chain smokers or consumed cigarettes often.

This report had a huge impact on the changing attitudes of smoking cigarettes in England, Wales and Australia. Several studies had proposed that smoking might be a cause of lung cancer before 1950, but until then people remained sceptical as the risks seemed minimal.

Dr Rafi Farsheed says today doctors must have an understanding of their patients’ circumstances instead of choosing to judge them based on their addiction.

“Doctors really cannot know the details surrounding the reasons why people smoke tobacco,” he said.

“Growing up as a teenager, the impacts of peer pressure and deindividuation can influence young people to partake in smoking tobacco. It’s a small decision that can lead to addictions that last a lifetime.”

Changing 50s

Advertisements made in the 60s and 70s started to cater towards women. (Image: supplied)

The 50s heralded a time of transition for the tobacco industry as perceptions towards smoking were changing. The consumption of cigarettes, which had been seen as a normal day-to-day habit, morphed into an ugly realisation that smoking had harmful effects.

Before the early 1900s, women were not heavy smokers. Trends show that women who smoked were mostly prostitutes, the working underclass, convicts or workers in male-dominated industries.

The changing perception of cigarettes in the 1940s encouraged women to pursue smoking as a recreational activity. After the second world war ended, women had more social and financial freedom.

As a result, there was a rise in cigarette consumption by women. By late 1945 more than one quarter of women were smoking and more than half of men were partaking in the habit.

In the 1950s tobacco users began suing cigarette companies. (Image: Shannen Findlay)

After research suggested smoking cigarettes could lead to death, the number of female smokers still continued to rise. Whare’s mother, who let him begin smoking at age four, gave him his first exposure to smoking, he says.

“She taught me how to roll and, after that, she’d let me take a puff before giving it to her … We bonded through this connection,” he said.

When the first reports emerged linking cigarettes to cancer, smokers began suing cigarette manufacturers.

The first major win in favour of those impacted by smoking cigarettes was in 2000 in California. The company Phillip Morris was ordered to pay US$51.5 million to a smoker with inoperable lung cancer.

How tobacco’s advertising kept a billion dollar industry afloat

Developments of new forms of tobacco promotion encouraged growth in the tobacco industry, despite knowledge of harmful effects.

Companies were able to continue to profit through successful advertising tactics.

From the 1950s and through to the 1970s some of Hollywood’s finest films were populated with main characters smoking cigarettes.

A study detailing the amount of cigarette appearances in Hollywood films found that in 1950 films that had smoking scenes made up 38.9 per cent of releases.

Cigarettes got the most screen time in films in 1961, with 40.8 per cent of films showing smoking. By 2006 the trend had dropped to just 7.9 per cent in the wake of anti-smoking campaigns.

Films over time have seen less characters consuming cigarettes.

Western celebrities like Audrey Hepburn, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe smoking cigarettes on film (and off) influenced the perception of smoking. They added sex appeal, glamour and rebellion.

Audrey Hepburn smoking. (Image: Supplied)
James Dean and Marilyn Monroe smoking cigarettes in New York City. (Image: Supplied)

Celebrities advertising tobacco products allowed for cigarette companies to continue to influence younger and more susceptible generations. But as time evolves companies are using smarter advertising tactics to maintain sales and customer loyalty.

In more recent years smoking campaigns promoting the habit have been banned from mainstream media. Australia’s anti-smoking advertising laws prohibit companies from advertising tobacco products and carry fines of up to $126,000. Individuals can face fines up to $25,000.

Social media marketing is sophisticated and has created a fine line between what is legal and not. It has become a popular avenue for companies to promote their products as it provides direct access to certain demographics and ensures a certain level of engagement.

Media users have become more intelligent in deciphering what is sponsored.

The anti-smoking campaign’s impact

Smoking restrictions and bans were not in existence until 1987 when the government prohibited smoking on all domestic flights. The same followed for international flights in 1996.

The Australian government has made important strides in ensuring preventative measures against smoking tobacco. Strict smoking laws throughout Australia prevented smoking in enclosed public areas in the early 2000s.

Millions of people have quit smoking within the past 60 years for a number of reasons including growing knowledge of the health risks and anti-smoking government campaigns.

As values have evolved, the desire to live better and for longer has influenced tobacco users to quit.

Shannen Findlay 

Edited by Denby Weller.