From Alabama to Colombia: Smoking in the Moonlight

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From Alabama to Colombia: Smoking in the Moonlight

It lay on its back in the middle of a walkway between two apartment buildings near mine. The neighborhood in the north of Bogotá, Santa Barbara, normally feels normal and secure. Roses grow here, and prowling cats slink over metal security fences.

A bright full moon rose over the eastern Andes, but I still had to look twice at what I saw in front of me. A tiny discarded box rested smack in the middle of the sidewalk. On its cover, I made out a Marlboro Blue Ice brand, with these words: Fumar Causa Aborto. (Smoking causes abortions.)

I felt a thunderclap of shock—and horror—at the graphic. A little aborted fetus lay in a pool of blood.

At first, the graphic image on the package failed to register. I thought, absurdly, of ET, the extraterrestrial, knocked flat on his ass in a rollicking ketchup fight.

They pull no punches with cigarette package warning labels in Colombia.

At the friendly neighborhood supermarket, Carulla, I found a display for cigarettes at the checkout counter, right over the pork skins and chewing gum. The grisly images on the packages, and their grim labels, shocked me yet again.

Lucky Strike advertised smoke-rotted lungs (Fumar Daña Tus Pulmones: Smoking Damages Your Lungs). A huge inflamed red Sauron eye on the Belmonts stared balefully at buyers (Fumar Causa Problemas Oculas: Smoking Causes Eye Problems).

Other brand labels displayed children wearing oxygen masks, with second-hand smoke warnings. I saw women with missing tracheae and tubes snaking into their necks. I flinched at the worst gums and teeth I’ve seen since visiting the sheep-herder country of rural Ireland 20 years ago.

Colombia has joined some 80 other countries that mandate graphic labeling on cigarette packages. In Britain and Australia, cigarette packages carry no branding at all. Smokers simply reach for the aborted fetus or the box with a cutaway set of lungs that look inside like the aftermath of a suicide bombing.

In the United States, tobacco companies have successfully fended off graphic image efforts, claiming violations of free speech. Cigarette packages only hold text warnings about the danger of smoking: a habit that kills one of every two long-term customers. The same written labels have been on packages for 30 years now, and it’s been a half century since the public first read “Smoking and Health,” the landmark surgeon general’s report that scientifically linked cigarettes with health hazards.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking causes 13 different kinds of cancer (among many other physical problems) and kills nearly 500,000 U.S. citizens a year … one in every five deaths. A court decision in 2006 (United States v. Philip Morris) found tobacco companies in the states guilty of fraudulently covering up the health risks associated with smoking and of marketing their products to children.

My own father, who smoked past age 40 then switched to cigars, died at age 74 of cardiovascular disease. He had his first heart attack at age 54.

Honestly, I wish he’d seen a graphic label somewhere as a teen. Maybe the old coot would still be around.

I never took up smoking. I did breathe a lot of second-hand smoke, much of it sitting under a pine in the front yard of the family house on Parish Street in Dothan, Alabama.

Daddy and Mr. McAllister, the neighbor across the street, met outside in the cool of summer evenings and smoked and told stories. Owls hooted in the woods. The tips of cigarettes looked like soldering irons.

Smoking would have been easy for me, since lots of folks around used tobacco products of some sort. My debonair uncle John smoked. He would later die of lung cancer. My granddaddy dipped snuff. You could always locate Bill McCrory’s Dodge in a parking lot by simply finding the truck with brown spit stains on the door.

I give credit to one man—Doug Tew—for saving me from Mr. Nicotine.

Dougie, as we knew him in 1966, helped run things at Dothan Recreation Center, where I played summer sports and splashed in the pool (when it didn’t stand starkly empty during a polio scare). Dougie chewed Red Man tobacco, and I’m not sure I ever saw him without a bulge. Rumored to be part Native American—a real red man—Dougie went about his chores sporting a dramatic tan that made him exotic to me and other little leaguers.

At age 12, I made Dothan’s Dixie Youth Baseball all-star team. Our players knew we’d soon be matched against teams from other towns in the state, and civic pride kicked in. For extra practice, a few of us showed up unscheduled after church one Sunday to shag flies and field grounders.

Dougie happened to be around, and he agreed to coach us that day. The man with the tan encouraged us to “get some vitamins” by taking off our shirts. (I freckled audibly for 10 minutes, then turned the color of a boiled weenie.) We hustled after baseballs for hours, and sweated nearly to dehydration. July days in Alabama climb well into the 90s, often with 90-percent humidity (the Gulf of Mexico lies an hour south).

We were 12. We were boys. We were good at baseball, the national pastime of that past time, and we grew up dreaming of the big leagues. We watched TV broadcasts by Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese. We marveled at the mythological skills of our heroes. Mine happened to be a fellow Alabamian named Hank Aaron, whose Milwaukee Braves had just moved to Atlanta. It didn’t matter to me that Hank was black. He was from Alabama, he wore number 44, and he hit 44 home runs year after year.

I never knew about Hammerin’ Hank, but many baseball players we watched on Saturdays chewed tobacco. We chewed bubble gum to copy them, expectorating often and massively, just the way the players did. We wanted to be like Mickey and Yogi and Hank.

At the end of Doug Tew’s Sunday workout, a group of limp, exhausted all-stars sprawled in the grass. Dougie approached, bat still in hand. He’d hardly broken a sweat. Dougie reached for his Red Man pouch.

“Hey Dougie! Let us try some!” a boy yelled. And a cry went up: “Yeah! Yeah! Let us try some!”

So Dougie let us try some. We eagerly pulled plugs from his Red Man pouch and placed them, as instructed, between cheek and gum. I grew dizzy immediately. A couple of other boys turned a shade of green, the color of nausea. Chewing tobacco is not for sissies.

And then Doug Tew, in his infinite wisdom and in 95-degree mid-afternoon heat, announced: “Okay boys, let’s run some bases!” I made it around third before I threw up. Puked. Hurled. Spewed. Upchucked. Technicolor-yawned.

Mr. Pavlov was right. Forever after that day, tobacco in any form brought back that most unpleasant memory—Charlie on hands-and-knees in red dirt, sunburned, blind with sweat and tears, barfing up every morsel I’d eaten since the first grade.

Thank you, Doug Tew.

I wanted my picture on a baseball card. That never happened. But I will never have my picture on a cigarette package either. In Colombia or anywhere else. Thank goodness.

Photo: Antara, CC-BY

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.

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