“Mild As May, with red tips to match your pretty lips and fingertips”
How Tobacco Companies Sold Women a Pack of Lies

This exhibition traces the history of efforts by the tobacco industry to encourage women to smoke cigarettes. At the turn of the 20th century, cigarette smoking was socially unacceptable for women but was gaining a foothold with American men, who were slowly switching from cigars. Lucy Paige Gaston, founder of the Chicago Anti-Cigarette League, condemned smoking by women on the grounds that it undermined family values and the moral fabric of society. The potential for the widespread adoption of smoking by ladies in good standing was decried by politically influential leaders of the temperance movement. New York City’s Sullivan Ordinance of 1908 made it unlawful for women to smoke in public, but the ban was largely ignored.

Not until 1919 did a cigarette maker (P. Lorillard Tobacco Company) use chic images of society women in its advertisements—as distinct from the risqué  images of women that had long adorned cigar boxes and trading cards in cigarette packs. World War I changed everything. American tobacco companies supplied unending cartons of cigarettes to the boys in the trenches, while at home women began smoking in public.

In the 1920s cigarettes were essential accoutrements of social trendsetters. 5% of cigarettes were consumed by women in 1923; 12%, in 1929. Still, most cigarette manufacturers were concerned about a prohibitionistic backlash and refrained from promoting their product directly to women. An exception was the 1927 campaign for Marlboro cigarettes in women’s fashion magazines with the theme, “Mild as May.” The most renowned advertising campaign of the period directed at women was the association of cigarette smoking with staying slim. Launched in 1928, American Tobacco Company’s “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet” slogan incurred the wrath of the candy industry.

By World War II, one third of American women smoked cigarettes. As a result, the prevalence of lung cancer in women began dramatically increasing in the 1960s. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph A. Califano, Jr. famously observed on January 11, 1979 (the fifteenth anniversary of the publication of the landmark US Surgeon General’s report on smoking and health) that now “women who smoke like men die like men who smoke.” By 1986, deaths from lung cancer in women had surpassed those of breast cancer, and by the early-2000s more cases of lung cancer were being diagnosed in women than in men.

Alan Blum, MD
The University of Alabama Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society

(Text adapted in part from “Mixed messages for women: A social history of cigarette smoking and advertising,” by Virginia L. Ernster, Phd, published in the New Your State Journal of Medicine, July 1985, pages 335-341.)