Cigarettes in the Popular Press, 1930-1960: Preliminary Research

Gary T. Ford, American University
Debra J. Ringold, University of Baltimore
Martha Rogers, Bowling Green State University
ABSTRACT - This paper reports the results of a content analysis of articles on tobacco and tobacco related products appearing in Time, Reader's Digest, Life, New Yorker and Saturday Evening Post from 1930 through 1960. As a percentage of articles published, the issue of smoking and health was most prominent in the 1930s and from 1950 through 1960. On an absolute basis, the number of articles concerned with smoking and health were greatest from 1950 through 1960. The content of articles mentioning smoking and health evolved over time. In the 1930s such articles were concerned with symptoms of health effects (e.g.,coughs), while in the 1950s the focus changed to more serious effects such as cancer.
[ to cite ]:
Gary T. Ford, Debra J. Ringold, and Martha Rogers (1990) ,"Cigarettes in the Popular Press, 1930-1960: Preliminary Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, eds. Marvin E. Goldberg, Gerald Gorn, and Richard W. Pollay, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 467-473.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 467-473


Gary T. Ford, American University

Debra J. Ringold, University of Baltimore

Martha Rogers, Bowling Green State University


This paper reports the results of a content analysis of articles on tobacco and tobacco related products appearing in Time, Reader's Digest, Life, New Yorker and Saturday Evening Post from 1930 through 1960. As a percentage of articles published, the issue of smoking and health was most prominent in the 1930s and from 1950 through 1960. On an absolute basis, the number of articles concerned with smoking and health were greatest from 1950 through 1960. The content of articles mentioning smoking and health evolved over time. In the 1930s such articles were concerned with symptoms of health effects (e.g.,coughs), while in the 1950s the focus changed to more serious effects such as cancer.


When did smokers first learn that cigarettes were unhealthy? What and when did they learn specifically about the effects of smoking on their health? It is, of course, impossible ex post to provide definitive answers to these questions. This is so, despite knowing that conventional wisdom has long held that cigarettes are unhealthy, e.g., the term "coffin nails" dates from early this century (Calfee 1985). A partial answer can be obtained, however, by examining what the popular press was reporting throughout the period when scientific evidence about the effects of smoking on health was first being accumulated and disseminated. By examining what the press was reporting, inferences can be drawn about what the public was being exposed to, if not learning.

The purpose of this paper is to trace what was written in the popular press about cigarettes from the period 1930 through 1960 in order to learn what the American public was being told about the effects of smoking on health. This is of more than academic interest because it is often alleged in cigarette product liability suits that the plaintiff was unaware of the potential adverse effects of smoking on health (Green vs. American Tobacco Co. 1962, Cipollone vs. Liggett Group, Inc. 1984). Others, (Calfee 1985, 1986; Ringold and Calfee 1989), argue that knowledge of the harmful effects of smoking was so widespread some cigarette manufacturers capitalized on the fears of smokers by advertising their product was "less-unhealthy-than" competitive offerings.

Calfee (1985, 1986) and Ringold and Calfee (1989) have shown that claims of the less-unhealthy-than variety appeared in the late 1920s and 1930s, remained fairly stable during the 1940s and increased in frequency in the 1950s. Ringold and Calfee (1989) have also shown that the type of health information being communicated in advertising changed over time. In the 1930s concerns about the health effects of smoking were reflected in information about symptoms such as sore throats and coughs. By the 1950s this information was concerned with more serious and longer term effects, e.g., lung cancer.

Underlying the Calfee (1985, 1986) and Ringold and Calfee (1989) research is the notion that cigarette advertisers were responding to, rather than initiating, smoker's concerns about the health consequences of smoking. If Calfee and Ringold are correct, information published in the popular press should show the same pattern of dissemination, i.e., articles on smoking and health will be relatively frequent as early as the 1930s, and during the 1930 to 1960 time period, the content will change from mentions of symptom to mentions of more serious consequences.


We performed a content analysis of all articles published in five popular magazines between 1925 and 1960 and cited in the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature under the headings "tobacco," "cigarettes," "smoking" and all related sub-headings. The five magazines were Time, Life, Saturday Evening Post, Reader's Digest and the New Yorker Although no articles from these magazines on tobacco, smoking or cigarettes were cited in the Reader's Guide between 1925 and 1929, one hundred and thirty-five separate citations were found under those headings for the 1930 to 1960 time span. All 135 articles were located and photocopied. For purposes of this study an "article" is defined as any citation in the Reader's Guide.

Codes were developed following an examination of over one-half of all tobacco related titles listed in the Reader's Guide from 1950-1960. In addition, all such articles appearing in Time between 1950 and 1960 were examined. The coding form was intended to capture general and specific information about the content of the article as well as other descriptive information such as article source, date and length. General information regarding content was measured with eight codes summarizing the "most prominent theme" (MPT) of the article, e.g., agriculture, marketing, regulation, health, etc. This was the only variable in the coding scheme that forced the coders to make decisions that went beyond noting the mere presence or absence of information or other routine categorizations, e.g., percentage of the page occupied by the article.

The MPT information was supplemented with 207 specific codes concerning such potential topics as agricultural methods, crop sizes, quality of crop, product liability suits, smoking and athletes, smoking and children, figures for tar, irritation of eyes linked to smoking, irritation of nasal passages linked to smoking, smoker's hack or cough, quitting smoking, calls to ban the promotion of cigarettes, etc. Consistent with Kassarjian (1977), the sole objective of the 207 specific codes was to categorize the topics contained in the article. A complete list of the codes is available from the authors.



Two training sessions were held with the two student coders to review and explain the coding instructions and to give the coders an opportunity to practice on a set of articles appearing after 1960 in Time Thus, the articles used in the data set were not used in the practice coding. Each coder worked independently through all 135 articles. When the coding was completed, a third trained student coder went through each article resolving coding differences.

The overall inter-rater reliability was .62, which was lower than anticipated. An analysis of the source of coding differences revealed that almost all were due to coding omissions rather than to coding disagreements, i.e., one of the coders found something in an article that the other did not. When a random sample of one-quarter (n = 34) of all the articles was examined to determine the source of coding disagreements, 91 percent (261/288) were omissions. It appears that the complexity of identifying the complete content of articles, coupled with the task of assigning the content to 207 specific coding categories, was a difficult task. (By way of comparison the IRR's for the MPT coding was .72 and was .96 for the "type of article" coding.) Because of the low overall IRR, we carefully reviewed the reconciliation results of the third judge. Based on this review, we are quite confident that the final coding was successful. That is, we believe the final set of codes accurately reflects the content of the 135 articles.


We begin with information describing the 135 articles, including when and where they were published and their main topics. Next, we summarize results regarding the details of the articles including, for example, the specific effects of smoking on health. The key questions are, of course, win did health related information about cigarette smoking begin appearing in the popular press and what specific health effects were mentioned?

Overview of the 135 article data set Table 1 provides the distribution of articles by four time periods for the five target periodicals. The data are displayed in decades for 1930-39 and 1940-49, while the last eleven year period was split at 1956. The 1950 to 1960 time frame has been divided in an attempt to capture three effects: First, during the early 1950s the first widely disseminated scientific evidence about the health effects of smoking started appearing. Second, it was also during this time that the FTC cigarette advertising guidelines went into effect, (i.e., 1954-55). Third, Reader's Digest began publishing tar and nicotine figures in the latter half of the 1950s, setting off the 1957-59 so-called "tar derby." Thus by dividing the analysis at 1956, it was anticipated that the coding scheme would capture changes in the specific health effects being mentioned.

Two points from Table 1 stand out: First, there were very few articles about tobacco, cigarettes and smoking before the 1950s. Overall, of the 135 articles in the data set, approximately two-thirds appeared between 1950 and 1960, slightly less than one-quarter were published in the 1940s and less than ten percent appeared between 1930 and 1939.



Second, Time and Reader's Digest account for the vast majority of these articles. In fact, Time alone accounted for 57 percent (77/135) of all the articles with Reader's Digest contributing an additional 20 percent of the citations. It might be noted that in terms of issues per article, Time a weekly publication averaged one smoking related article every 7.4 issues while Reader's Digest, a monthly, averaged one every 4.9 issues. Taken as a group, the other three publications, all weeklies, averaged one article every 55 issues.

Besides publishing smoking information more frequently than the other periodicals, Reader's Digest also published longer articles. All 135 articles were trichotomized into one-third of a page or less, more than one-third but less than a full page and a full page or more. Twenty-six of the 27 articles published in Reader's Digest were more than one full page in length. By contrast, 49 of the 77 published in Time were one-third of a page or less and only three were more than one page. (Remember, however, Time has larger pages than does Readers Digest so the difference in number of words per article is likely to be less dramatic.) For the entire data set, 42 of the 135 articles (31 percent) were more than one page and 55 (or 41 percent) were one-third of a page or less. Length of article did not vary across the five publications by time period.

The overwhelming percentage of articles were concerned with cigarettes rather than with other tobacco-related topics (e.g., the tobacco crop, tobacco prices, etc). Overall 83 percent (or 112 of 135) articles were concerned with cigarettes. To determine whether there was a trend to cigarette-related articles versus other tobacco-related articles over time, we developed a two-by-two matrix of time period (1930-49; 1950-60) by topic of article (cigarettes; other tobacco-related). The obtained chi-square of 7.20 was significant at beyond alpha = .01 and indicated that there was a shift to cigarette-related articles between 1950 and 1960; i.e., 81 of the 91 articles (89 percent) appearing between 195060 were concerned with cigarettes compared to 31 of 44 (or 70 percent) before 1950.

Table 2 classifies the most prominent theme of the article by time period. The theme receiving the most attention by far in the 135 articles was health, (slightly over one-third of all articles), followed by marketing (22 percent) and articles on smoking initiation or cessation (13 percent). The theme of "regulation" accounted for less than ten percent of all articles overall, but was important in two time periods. Regulation was the main theme in five articles (15 percent) between 1940 to 1949, (but only one of these articles concerned the FTC cases against Lucky Strike, Camel, Old Gold and Philip Morris regarding health claims). Regulation was the most prominent theme in another five (or ten percent) of the articles published between 1950 and 1955; (three of these were concerned with FTC regulation of advertising and another reported on the FTC's advertising guidelines). In the other time periods articles on regulation were rare, as was regulation itself.



After 1949, articles concerned principally with the health effects of smoking accounted for a substantive percentage of all tobacco related articles: 32 percent (or 16 articles) between 1950 and 1955 and 58 percent (or 24 articles) of those published between 1956 and 1960. During the 1930s four of the twelve articles mainly concerned health, while in the decade of the 1940, only two of 32 articles had health as the most prominent theme.

The trend underlying these data becomes even more apparent when the percentage of articles not mentioning health are examined (see lower portion of Table 2). In the 193Os over two-thirds of the thirty-two articles published did not mention anything about tobacco and health. In the 1950-55 time period, this figure fell to 44 percent and in 1956-60, it fell again to less than 15 percent. When attempting to identify trends by time period, we must be careful to distinguish the absolute number of health citations from the relative number. During the 1930s two-thirds of the articles on smoking mentioned smoking and health, compared to less than one-third in the 1940s. On an absolute basis, however, this translates into eight articles mentioning health in the 1930s versus ten articles in the 1940s. Thus, readers were exposed to more health-related content in the 1940s, although the percentage of articles mentioning the health effects of smoking was lower than in the 1930s.

An examination of the eight articles from the 1930s that mentioned health effects of smoking indicates these issues concerned respiratory problems (3), eye irritation (2), negative effects with regard to olfaction (2), fatigue (4), addiction (4) and quitting smoking (5). They did not usually concern more serious health issues such as cancer (1) or early mortality (2).

Overall, these findings are generally consistent with Ringold and Calfee (1989). That is, citations to smoking and health were relatively frequent in the 1930s and the 1950 to 1960 time period. During the 1940s we found that smoking and health was mentioned in more articles, but was mentioned relatively less frequently than during the 1930s.

Reader's Digest was the most consistent in providing information about tobacco and health. In the 1940s five of the six articles it published on tobacco mentioned health and in the 1950 to 1960 time period sixteen of the seventeen Reader's Digest articles mentioned health issues associated with tobacco. By comparison, a smaller percentage of articles in Time mentioned health in every time period, i.e., health was mentioned in 21 percent of the articles published in the 1940s, 52 percent of those published in 1950-55 and 88 percent of those published between 1956-60.

Content of the 135 articles Table 3 shows the content of the data set by time period. To aid interpretation the 207 specific categories were aggregated into eight broader groups. Overall 1,466 specific types of content were coded; an average of slightly less than eleven content citations per article. Health related citations and cigarette manufacturing, marketing and sales citations, each accounted for over slightly one-quarter of the codes. Regulation of cigarette advertising and discussions of research results, calls for more research and discussions of research methodology, accounted for eleven and thirteen percent of the specific citations, respectively. Information about the composition of cigarette smoke represented slightly less than eight percent of the codes. All other categories accounted for five percent or less of the codes. Consistent with data presented earlier on the number of articles published by time period, almost 70 percent, (i.e., 1,019/1,466) of all content citations occurred between 1950 and 1960.



The specific content of the articles over time mirrored the findings presented above regarding the "most prominent theme." That is, health effects were mentioned relatively frequently in the 1930s, infrequently in the 1940s and more frequently than any other topic area from 1950 through 1960. Citations to research results and methodology and other research topics tracked quite closely with the pattern for health effects citations, as did mentions of the composition of cigarette smoke.

The specific types of health effects cited in these articles are shown in Table 4. The most apparent result in Table 4, i.e., that different types of health effects were prominent at different times, is perhaps the least surprising. Of more relevance is that the potentially fatal health effects of smoking specifically, links of smoking to cancer and effects on the circulatory system (e.g., heart attacks), did not account for a substantive portion of content citations-until the 1956 through 1960 time period.

In the 1930s the popular press made reference to smoking and fatigue, addiction and quitting, allergic reactions and the like. During the 1940s smoker's cough and other respiratory effects accounted for 35 percent of the health effect citations. Other health issues of prominence in the 1940s concerned effects of smoking on the circulatory system, (12 percent of cites) and addiction, (14 percent of cites). Interestingly, one of the most prominent health effects of current concern, harm done to the fetus by a mother who smokes, was mentioned hardly at all from 1930 through 1960.

Table 5 breaks down content by periodicals. Because of our focus on health related information, that category is displayed in more detail than the others. In addition, Life, New Yorker and Saturday Evening Post, have been aggregated in Table 5 because each had so few smoking-related citations. As shown in the last line of Table 5, the latter three publications had both the lowest percentage of (18 percent), and fewest health citations. Instead, over 50 percent of the citations in the latter three publications were concerned with production, management, marketing and sales of cigarettes and other tobacco products.

The last line in Table 5 indicates that Reader's Digest averaged 7.5 health content mentions per article compared to 2.1 in Time and 1.4 in the aggregation of Life, New Yorker and Saturday Evening Post Table 5 also shows that over 40 percent of the items coded from Reader's Digest were health related, compared to slightly over 20 percent in Time Also, more of the citations in Reader's Digest were concerned with the composition of cigarette smoke (10.5 percent) and with mentions of research results or research methodology (15.8 percent) than in Time In addition, there were fewer mentions of cigarette manufacturing, marketing and sales (14.4 percent) in Reader's Digest than in Time (31.7 percent) or as noted above in the grouping of the three other periodicals.



Regarding specific health effects of smoking, 9.0 percent of the health citations in Reader's Digest were to circulatory problems associated with smoking, 8.9 percent were to smoker's cough and respiratory problems and another 2.5 percent were to early mortality. The corresponding percentages for Time were 3.2 for circulatory problems and 1.6 for early mortality due to smoking. Conversely, 6.7 percent of the content citations in Time were to the link between cancer and smoking, compared to 3.9 percent in Reader's Digest

The information on the specific content of articles in Tables 3, 4 and 5 can be summarized as follows. The health effects of smoking accounted for a substantial percentage of all content citations in the 1930s and the 1950s. Health content in the 1930s was mainly about smoker's cough, fatigue and other such symptoms of health effects. It was not until the 1950s, especially 1956-1960 that health effects such as cancer and circulatory system effects became the modal health content categories. Reader's Digest articles mentioned the health effects of smoking to a much greater extent than did the other periodicals.


This paper reported the results of a preliminary study of the prevalence of tobacco related articles and of the content of those articles in five widely circulated popular periodicals from 1930 through 1960. Our findings are generally consistent with those reported by others (Calfee (1985, 1986, Ringold and Calfee 1989) regarding the prevalence and content of health-related information in cigarette advertising in the 1930 through 1960 time period.

The nature of the health content changed in each decade. Broadly speaking, during the 1930s the content was not about the potentially fatal effects of smoking but about less serious effects such as smoker's cough, irritations, allergies and the like. A much higher percentage of all smoking and health content citations from the 1950s articles were by contrast concerned with cancer and the effects of smoking on the circulatory system.


Calfee, John E. (1985) "Cigarette Advertising, Health Information and Regulation Before 1970," working paper, Bureau of Economics, Federal trade Commission, 1-79.

Calfee, John E. (1986) "The Ghost of Cigarette Advertising Past," Regulation, November-December.

Cipollone vs. Liggett Group, Inc., 593 F. supp. 1146 (D.N.J. 1984).

Green vs. American Tobacco Co., 304 F. 2D. 70 (5th Circuit. (1962).

Kassarjian, Harold H. (1977) "Content Analysis in Consumer Research," Journal of Consumer Research, 4 (June) 8-18.

Ringold, Debra J. and John E. Calfee (1989) "The Informational Content of Cigarette Advertising," Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, 7, in press.