Tobacco is back in the news again, with the $375 million pledge by billionaires Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg to help curb smoking. In my lifetime — I am now 96 — the story of tobacco has undergone a profound change. At one time, the smoke-filled room was an ever-present mark of social and political gatherings. Nicotine was imbibed in many ways in addition to smoking. It was chewed in the form of gum. It was inhaled and called “snuff.”
My personal experience with tobacco was a key moment in my life. As a teenage socialist in Brooklyn, I spent many hours on a soapbox haranguing my listeners about the injustices of capitalism. On one occasion, my throat began to choke. I went to a doctor and asked him what to do. He gave me a medicine and told me to take a sip when my throat began to bother me.
I asked him what caused my discomfort in the first place. He asked me whether I smoked. I said “yes” — cigars, cigarettes, cigarillos and a pipe. “If so,” he said, “you can expect a troublesome throat.” I told him I would quit smoking. He told me that smoking becomes a habit that is difficult to break. But I had no difficulty. Apparently, I had never inhaled.
At some point, the public view of smoking underwent a revolutionary change. Stores, hotel lobbies and other public places posted “no smoking” signs. It is one reason, though not the only reason, why people live longer in America.