It’s graduation day, your last day on campus. You have on your best clothes, and the school administration concludes the ceremony. You hug your friends and family, think of the mark you’ll leave on campus, the memories you’ve made, and smoke a cigar. Ok, maybe not the last one. But for many high school and college graduates in the Northeast, that’s not a rare sight. Graduating seniors flock to social media to post themselves, cigar in hand, smoke blowing from their mouths. Younger students express excitement at the chance to smoke a cigar at graduation. Cigars are portrayed as a symbol of maturity for young adults and are played off as a “safer” alternative to tobacco products like cigarettes-a dangerous and problematic tradition that requires schools to inform students on the classist ethnocentric tensions fostered by the cigar industry, tell the truth on cigars’ harmful effects, and stigmatize the use of cigars in teens.
Origins of Cigars in American Society
Cigars were first introduced to Americans in the late 18th century by General Israel Putnam. Putnam, after serving in the Revolutionary War, travelled to Cuba and returned to Connecticut with a box of Cuban cigars. The discovery caused cigar factories to sprout across the country throughout the early 19th century. In the 1850s, it was estimated that Americans alone consumed three hundred million cigars a year. As a well-respected war veteran, General Israel Putnam’s views and knowledge on cigars influenced the American civilian perspective on cigars. Putnam had an advantage in being the first to transport cigars to the American public and would decide the future of the cigar industry in America just from the way he advertised cigars. Putnam only presented cigars as a Cuban recreational substance, so the American view of cigars was limited. His lack of knowledge on tobacco’s long term effects would make Americans vulnerable to tobacco product advertising as well as the weaponization of tobacco in the war between social classes and ethnic groups.
Advertisements and public figures during the 19th century and 20th century promoted cigars as a necessity in the lifestyle of men. American writer and humorist Mark Twain wrote down, “If heaven has no cigars, I shall not go there”. Neurologist Sigmund Freud claimed, “I owe to the cigar a great intensification of my capacity to work and a facilitation of my self-control”. Established men talking down to citizens crediting cigars for their success gave the public false ideas that smoking more and more cigars would help individuals achieve intellect and success in society. Civilians were being encouraged to smoke cigars to create a pretense of a prosperous financial situation and self-assurance to impress greater society even as they simultaneously decreased their personal funds and internalized this harmful mindset that the value of a person can be measured from the tobacco products they buy.
Cigar Sexualization and Gender Roles
In addition, 20th-century cigar companies targeted the male audience by sexualizing the women in their advertisements. The women existed in the advertisement only to please the man and were portrayed to be highly sexual and easily manipulated by a cigar. These advertisements objectified professional women by devaluing their achievements and professionalism. Men and young boys were being taught that women couldn’t be professional or handle professional jobs in the same capability as men. They were being taught that buying cigars showed their power and maturity over women. Women and young girls who saw the advertisements might begin to think that buying certain cigar brands would make them appear sexier or more attractive to the opposite sex. They might begin to think that they are incapable of doing the same jobs as men properly or that they had to act a certain way to impress and satisfy men. The high consumption of cigars truly only profited the men who ran the companies while allowing them to plant ideas of female inferiority and materialism into the public. When the public consumed the cigars, they contributed to an unequal, discriminatory society where white Protestant American males dominated other groups and controlled the economy.
At the same time as the rise of the cigar in the 19th century, cigarettes began to be mass-produced in the United States. Cheap domestic cigarettes were bought mostly by young men and immigrant children from eastern and southern Spain, where smoking cigarettes was common. These cigarettes could be smoked quickly in between work, were less offensive than other tobacco products, and also appealed to the working class because of their low prices. Despite the fact that both cigar and cigarette prices varied enough to appeal to people of all social classes, cigarettes specifically were viewed as unmanly. Cigarettes represented the irresponsible men who were not fulfilling their duty to provide for their family. Meanwhile, cigars became the masculine counterpart to cigarettes, symbolizing the affluence and success of a self–made man. Already, both the working class and immigrants were seen as unrespectable and financially unsuccessful people, so the popularity of cigars among them helped cement the stigma attached to cigarettes.
Tobacco’s Use in Excluding Immigrants
An 1885 editorial in The New York Times cautioned men against smoking cigarettes and about the dangers cigarettes posed to America’s political future. “A grown man has no possible excuse for thus imitating the small boy… The decadence of Spain began when the Spaniards adopted cigarettes and if this pernicious habit obtains among adult Americans[, then] the ruin of the Republic is close at hand”. The upper and middle class, unfamiliar with the hardships of the working class, circulated the idea that cigarettes demonstrated the behavior of a “small boy” and immaturity. In actuality, the young boys of many working class families were responsible for providing for their families.
Increased immigration from countries like Spain in eastern and southern Europe, which were majority Catholic and Jewish, amplified anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic sentiment from a majority Protestant United States. At any chance they could get, Americans criminalized anything that could be associated with eastern and southern European immigrants to effectively alienate these people from polite society and encourage discriminatory actions towards these people. The upper class in particular feared the growing immigrant population would gain wealth and take over the economy by intermingling with their established riches. Families sent their children to boarding schools to be educated away from the city where private day schools and public schools were accepting more and more immigrant and lower class students. These boarding schools were started in the Northeast by a tight circle of families who had established themselves in trading, finance, law, medicine, teaching, or architecture. The schools strove to create future leaders and bonds among the elite class and excluded women, immigrants, Catholic, and Jewish people from their admissions.
It was natural that the boarding school students would adapt to society’s rules and standards for manhood. Boarding schools bred a pride in students of their Americanness, their Protestantism, their manhood, and their social class. Cigars only strengthened their alignment to the societal standard for men and was a convenient but superficial show of their maturity, masculinity, and elite social class. With the restructuring of schools in the last century, boarding schools, colleges, and public schools alike have banned the use of tobacco in their rulebooks. However, the tolerance of the unofficial tradition of cigars at graduation serves as a reminder for the elitist, sexist, racist, and xenophobic culture behind boarding schools. It signals the need for more research to be done into the history and actions of these institutions and how those actions indirectly affect students today.
The Truth About Cigars
As early as the 1850s, research was being conducted on the long term effects of tobacco products on the human body. French physician Bouisson published a study in 1859 involving 68 patients who had all used tobacco products and had developed mouth cancers. In it, Bouisson proposed that the subjects’ use of tobacco may be the cause of the cancers. Despite these findings and similar results being found in various studies within the century, public figures didn’t alarm American society, and neither did the American public stop their use of tobacco. The consequences of smoking cigars weren’t of public concern until 1954 when the American Cancer Society released a study stating cigar smoking habits as the cause for higher death rates and lung cancer. By then, cigars had become an essential in the American lifestyle and it became difficult for Americans to quit using cigars. Though some people began to speak out against smoking, many Americans and organizations such as The American Medical Association in Chicago pushed for research “to eliminate whatever element in the smoke [which] may induce disease.” It was almost too late. The unchecked use of tobacco had already killed Americans across social classes, and proven detrimental to the health of many others, regardless of social class or ethnic origin. Instead of learning to empathize with others and improving on our knowledge and cohesiveness as a nation, Americans had doomed themselves by focusing on differences in identity such as social class and how others fit into the idea of an “ideal American”.
Stigmatizing Cigars in the Modern Day
Despite efforts in recent years to educate teens on the dangers of using tobacco products, many still see cigars as a “safer” alternative to other tobacco products. In 2016, 1,100 U.S. teens ages 13-17 were surveyed on their views of cigars. “Only 53 percent agreed that ‘Cigars could cause cancers of the mouth and throat, even if you do not inhale’… And only half said ‘Cigars are not a safe alternative to cigarettes’ was ‘very believable.'” The disconnect between teens’ knowledge on the potency of cigars versus the number of published studies describing the addictiveness and toxins found in cigars is alarming. Teens may pick up a cigar with the mindset that they’ll smoke a cigar “just this once”. They don’t understand that even without a regular habit of smoking cigars, you can become addicted to cigars from the first try. Inhaling cigar smoke alone, “you can get as much nicotine as if you smoked cigarettes. Even without intentionally inhaling, large amounts of nicotine can be absorbed through the lining of the mouth.”
Romanticization of cigars in the media hasn’t helped the teen perception of cigars. As recent as 2017, Steve Harvey, Sean Combs, Robert De Niro, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Jordan, Michael Strahan can be seen at the front of cigar magazines. In Call Me By Your Name (2017), a coming-of-age film, the cast, most notably Timothee Chalamet, can be seen lounging around smoking cigars. In another 2017 film, Atomic Blonde, an action thriller film featuring Charlize Theron, Theron can be seen smoking for the majority of the movie. Seeing the long lasting relationship between celebrities and the cigar industry, high schools and universities should educate teens and young adults on the fact that neither celebrities nor the cigar industry will ever have public health in mind. They should empower students to abstain from such cigars at graduation traditions and emphasize the consequence of being near cigars, much less smoking them. School officials should remember this as they crackdown on cigar traditions; they should do this without racial or personal bias. Getting rid of cigars should be a part of a bigger process of erasing the historically chauvinistic culture present in institutions and shouldn’t be used as an excuse to further persecute marginalized groups. Getting rid of cigars is a small part of bettering our political system, economy, education system, health system, research institutions.