Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Smoking In The ’70s

The ubiquity of ashtrays and hazy rooms
Office receptionist (Helen Stenborg) smoking in 1975’s ‘Three Days Of The Condor’

The other night we watched the 1975 thriller Three Days Of The Condor, starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. (What was the big deal about Robert Redford? I’ve never understood it.) It was an okay movie, but it was more than a little fun to savor the Very Seventies aesthetic. Almost everybody is smoking in the movie, and huge ashtrays are everywhere — on desks in offices, on coffee tables, everywhere. I told the kids that this was how life was in the Seventies. It’s really hard to express to people today who didn’t live through it how smoky everywhere was back then.

Both of my parents were heavy smokers, and many of their friends smoked. Our living room looked like a fog bank rolled in some nights when people were over. There was nothing odd about that, at all, back then. I really and truly hated it as a kid. I frequently had headaches from all the smoke, but complaining about cigarette smoke in those days was seen as rude and dilettantish. I imagine my clothes smelled like I had been in a bar, but nobody noticed because every kid who grew up with parents who were smokers smelled like that — and most of us kids had parents who were smokers.

One of my first-ever flights was going transatlantic to Europe in 1984. I was seated in the non-smoking section — the last six rows in the plane. Imagine how absurd it was to have a non-smoking section on an airplane. There was one real advantage: you didn’t have to worry about the person sitting next to you smoking. My seat on the way back was in the smoking section, and I recall being pretty miserable (headachy, nauseated) on the eight-hour flight home. Again, this was normal.

It’s amazing to think back to how much of that we accommodated. Restaurants? Filled with smoke. Restaurants that banned pipes and cigars were thought to be progressive. Remember what it was like to wake up on Saturday or Sunday morning, having been out in a bar or disco the night before, and smelling your pile of clothes on the floor, reeking of stale smoke? And the same in your hair?

Man, I hated that so much. It’s so, so much better now. I think about bartenders, waiters, flight attendants, and other service personnel, having to put up with that to make a living.

A month or so ago, I was stopped at a red light, and glanced over at the car next to mine. The driver was a young mother with kids in the back. She was smoking, and the windows were all rolled up. I thought, man, those poor kids, I know what that’s like.