The news that The Nation will be hosting a big 150th anniversary event at St. Ann’s Warehouse on Brooklyn’s waterfront—at the new St. Ann’s building, the adapted Tobacco Warehouse, built in the 1870s—sent us into the magazine’s archives looking for what we have published about the plant King James I called that “noxious weed.”
An editorial from December 1865 on “The Etiquette of Smoking” noted that tobacco smoking would likely be around at least until “we have abolished all our custom-houses, cleaned the streets of New York, and the relations of capital and labor are satisfactorily settled.” Well, the first two are nearing accomplishment—global free trade having made a great advance with the recent passage of fast-track legislation to smooth the way for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and New York’s streets looking both spick and also span ever since the rich and those of light derm evinced a desire to move back to the city—while the third appears at least to be a distinct possibility, once capital has finally drummed labor entirely out of existence. Perhaps, those conditions having been met, smoking can finally, as The Nation’s editors put it in 1865, “be improved away.”
But fast-forward almost 90 years to The Nation’s most notable—indeed, glorious—intervention on the subject of tobacco. In 1953, Dr. Alton Ochsner wrote an article for The Nation bluntly titled “Lung Cancer: The Case Against Smoking.” Long before the connection between tobacco and cancer had become an accepted scientific fact, Ochsner wrote in The Nation that there was “a definite parallelism between the incidence of lung cancer and the size of cigarette sales in the United States.”
It was the first article about the connection between lung cancer and smoking written by a medical professional. “Unfortunately,” Dr. Ochsner wrote, “many physicians, probably because they themselves smoke, are unwilling to admit that there is a causal relationship between smoking and cancer of the lung, in spite of the overwhelming statistical evidence.”
The response from the tobacco industry was swift and fierce. In a small item in The Nation the following year, assistant to the publisher Martin Solow—later an influential ad-man—wrote that Ochsner’s article helped prompt the industry to “set up a fund to subsidize tobacco-cancer research.” Solow wrote that the piece made a big spash in advertising circles, his friends in the business told him:
When the Ochsner article appeared in The Nation, copies were snatched off the newsstands in record-breaking quantities—not to mention requests to the office for additional copies. Among other things, I’m told, they were circulated far and wide throughout the huckster fraternity.
To quote one of my informants: “It was the first national-magazine piece in a long time which started the old ulcers jumping and helped promote a crop of new ones. Even back then the boys began to realize they’d have to do something.”
The Nation: instigating such realizations since 1865.