Sacrificing Health for Thinness: A Look at Vintage Cigarette Ads

By Katie, 5:12 am

A lot of people say that they are pursuing weight loss in an attempt to “get healthier,” and certainly in some cases that’s the truth. But it’s also the truth that many people engage in decidedly unhealthy activities in the pursuit of skinny.

In my personal history, those unhealthy activities included diet restrictions, over-exercising, and – during a particularly dark time – attempts at purging (sometimes successful, sometimes not). Others might add laxative abuse and the use of diet pills to that list.  

And then there’s smoking.

Today we can all agree that smoking is downright bad for you. But, as these vintage advertisements show, there was a time when cigarettes were considered a completely legitimate form of weight control.

I’m conflicted when I see these ads. On the one hand, I’m glad that smoking cigarettes is not portrayed in this light anymore. On the other hand, I wonder how far we’ve really come; unfortunately, I think many people are still willing to sacrifice their health in the name of thinness (as I once was).

So I think it’s worth stating loud and clear: thinness does not equal health, and health does not equal thinness. Taking care of ourselves so that our bodies reach their natural weights is a good thing; damaging ourselves in order to look a certain way is not.

Did these advertisements surprise you?

Do you think people are still willing to take unhealthy measures in order to lose weight?

All images are courtesy of Sociological Images, originally from the Stanford School of Medicine.

41 Responses to “Sacrificing Health for Thinness: A Look at Vintage Cigarette Ads”

  1. Becca says:

    My granny always tells me that “in her day”, smoking was believed to be healthy, so the thing that really surprises me is how early on the Surgeon General posted warnings about the known risks. Honestly, pretty much anyone alive today has no right to sue cigarette companies – they were fully aware of the health risks when they started smoking!

    I’m a former smoker, and I’ve definitely identified with the mentality. I didn’t smoke to lose weight, but I permitted myself to continue because it offered a distraction from snacking.

    The reason I started? There are so many drawbacks, and yet so many people do it, so it must be amazing. The ridiculous thing? It’s not even nice.

    I definitely think people still take unhealthy measures to lose weight. You only have to look at some of the “healthy living” blogs, in which people damage their bodies with excessive exercise; while combining as many regimens as possible (vegan plus raw plus wheat-free) so that they can maintain an emaciated frame. My Mum used to take me to a “doctor” who would prescribe us Xenical *and* amphetamines with no knowledge of our medical history.

    I honestly think that the problem is getting worse – we expect everything to be instant, and will take risks because we are too impatient.

    P.S. I’m aware that vegan, raw and wheat-free can all be valid and healthy lifestyle choices, when applied with care. When people start to combine these choices deliberately in order to limit the foods they can actually eat – and when all their photos show someone pale, with protruding bones, that’s when I worry.

    • Katie says:

      I think your point is valid; there are certainly some people who restrict their diets for health purposes, and others who do it for weight loss. Like Andi says below, it’s a blurry line, making it all the more important that we all be very self-aware about our choices and motivations.

      Also, thanks for pointing out the whole “instant gratification” thing; I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I definitely think that plays a huge role in the problem!

  2. andi says:

    Great post. People definitely still smoke for weight control, or cite weight gain as a reason they are scared or not motivated to quit. (I work in public health/wellness and worked with tobacco cessation and prevention for about 2 years).

    and i agree with becca’s comment — there are so many behaviors that toe the line of unhealthy for weight control that can be masked or accepted with a little spin.

    • Katie says:

      Oh wow, so you definitely know all about this! I totally agree that the line can be very blurry.

  3. Karen says:

    The use of over the counter weight loss supplements is another very unhealthy measure people use to lose weight. Taking an over the counter “fat-burner” in attempts to lose weight is NOT healthy! I have experimented with these in the past and now know that those “drug” should not be a part of my healthy lifestyle…Lord knows what those things do to your body in the long run!

  4. I believe there are a lot of people engaging in unhealthy behaviors to get thin. Yesterday, I saw a slim fast commercial and was appalled. Dieting is so foreign to me now that it took me a minute to realize that people will actually buy the slim fast and believe that they can be “healthy” and “lose weight quickly”. There are SO many things wrong with this idea that I don’t even know where to begin.

    • Katie says:

      I hear ya. I’m often shocked when I see weight loss ads because to me, the idea that diets actually work was debunked a long time ago!

      • I completely agree! Seeing this made me realize how much the media used to influence me and my idea of dieting. I used to buy only “low fat” “low Calorie” foods because that’s what commercials told me I should be eating to have a perfect body. Meanwhile those things are packed with so many unhealthy preservatives. So glad I’ve moved past those days.

  5. Sadly, I am not surprised by these ads. Unfortunately the government and big companies like tobacco will pull at ANY emotional strings in the name of making money without any regard to our health.

    It’s not so unlike the government approving things like GMO’s and different chemicals in foods so that we can eat a large quantity of things our body does not know how to process that haven’t had any long term studies. At least with cigarettes, people KNOW they are bad for you but they make a choice to smoke them anyway.

    • Katie says:

      Interesting comparison! I hadn’t even thought about it in relation to government subsidies and such; thanks for pointing that out!

  6. I certainly agree that the whole searching for thinness over health thing is still VERY real. What about diet pills and such? Those ads are out there in full force in many magazines and on TV, etc. It’s definitely still skewed. Although, yea. At least cig ads still aren’t like that.

  7. Tamara says:

    I didn’t know many smokers growing up because everyone in my family made an effort to stop for the kids, but now I do and some of the justifications they come up with are ridiculous. I mean, there are some who are well aware they’re addicted, but then there are people who say, “I’ve tried to quit, but I eat too much and gain weight when I do. Being fat makes me stressed, which makes not having cigs even worse. I just need them to deal!”

    One thing I did not know from the ubiquitous warnings, though, was that smoking can seriously screw over your digestive system. Without warning, my boyfriend’s father’s ulcer burst. We didn’t even know he had one. Reading up, we found that three things in combination can increase stomach acid to the point that one inevitably forms: pain killers, alcohol, and cigarettes. He’d been overdoing the second two for decades, but when he aged and pulled a hamstring moving furniture he added the third and it was literally a recipe for disaster.

    • Katie says:

      On the first point: All the more reason to find HEALTHY stress relievers!

      On the second point: Wow. Just…wow.

  8. I love this post. Those adds are interesting because I agree with you–I don’t think we have really come that far. I think it is like the PC thing–are there really no more racists/bigots/misogynists or have they just gone into hiding? With this, I think that people may be more embarassed to admit that they’d rather you smoke than be fat, but I bet they do still think it. (Example: my own father recommending I “try that anorexia thing” again rather than put on weight.)

    • Katie says:

      Ummmmm what??? I am so shocked and sad to hear that. :( I hope you didn’t listen to him!

      • No, I did not listen to him (I was too busy rebelling against him!), but it definitely made it pretty clear to me that health took a back seat to thinness. That’s why I love blogs like this–we have to fight that, and the best way to do it (I think) is to hold a mirror right up to people like that, people who tell you to try something you know is unhealthy just to lose weight. When confronted with their own shallow-ness, I think they sometimes re-think the flawed value system that led them to even think such a thing.

        Did I mention I love this post?! :)

        • Katie says:

          Yay!!! :)

          You are so right – we have to keep fighting that flawed mentality!

  9. Wow. I’m actually really surprised by these ads. Where did you find them?

    It’s interesting because I thought our time has been the worst for promoting thinness. It still may be, but it’s interesting to see that it was of such importance decades ago as well.

    I absolutely think that people still engage in very unhealthy practices. Now, with all the hysteria over the obesity epidemic, I think people are more afraid of eating and gaining weight. It’s really unfortunate.

    Great post, Katie! As always, very thought-provoking!

  10. yikes, i never paid attention to this but WOW! not cool…

  11. Meg says:

    Smoking is actually my number one pet peeve. I can’t comprehend (especially people our age who have had it drilled in our heads since we were little) why any one would pick up such a nasty, vile habit.

    But your comparison is spot on. Things that we may think are a “healthy” way to stay thin now, might turn out to be more harmful later on. And you’re right, thinness (though it is so often) shouldn’t be the motivation behind getting fit. Tina (at FaithFitnessFun) really made me think when she wrote that she’d rather look like she worked for her body than look like she starves for it.

  12. I’m so glad cigarettes aren’t portrayed that way anymore, but I’m sure there are still people who believe smoking keeps them thin. It took me a long time to realize that my body has a natural weight, which has nothing to do with what the doctor’s office says. It’s still something I struggle with, but I know where I feel the healthiest, and that’s what matters.

    • Katie says:

      Absolutely! It really is a challenge; I feel like I get conflicting messages everywhere I turn! I have to continually remind myself that the messages from my body are the most important ones.

  13. Taryn says:

    I swear, sometimes I feel like we must be connected telepathically the way that your posts say just what I need to hear at the exact time I need to hear it!

    I started smoking during college as a social thing, and continued to smoke for 4 years. This March, I quit — I realized I wasn’t truly addicted to it, I only did it because I enjoyed the sensation, but let’s face it: there is just NO good reason to ever smoke. Ever! Especially if you don’t “need” it.

    On Sunday of THIS weekend, I was feeling particularly stressed about the holidays, and rather than confronting my emotions in a healthful manner, I bought a pack of cigarettes for the first time in 9 months. I tried to validate my decision, and even started researching smoking’s “positive” effect on metabolism to justify finishing the pack.

    After reading this post, I realize that I need to GET REAL. Smoking is an awful, disgusting habit, and the marginal boost that it may give my metabolism means nothing compared to the slew of negative long-term health effects.

    • Katie says:

      I’m so glad my post hit home for you! I hope you throw the rest of that pack in the trash! :)

  14. Lisa says:

    It’s weird –maybe because I’m younger and grew up in the generation of knowing cigarettes are bad but it baffles me how people can still smoke. It also baffles me that people can sue cigarette companies for getting cancer from smoking. Duh! Cigarettes are bad!

  15. These images are pretty shocking! However, at the time we didn’t know cigarettes were deadly yet (I think). So, really, it’s no different than today’s recommendations to “chew some gum when you are hungry to keep yourself from eating.”

    Which, in my opinion, is also not very helpful advice for weight loss. Switching the focus of an oral compulsion is not quite the same as taking care of your body.

  16. Wow, it is funny to see ads where cigs are depicted as healthy! Ha!

  17. Anna says:

    Hey Katie,
    I think it’s definitely still true that people are willing to harm themselves to be thin. I would not be surprised at all if 15 years from now some of the things that are currently marketed are determined to be unsafe/dangerous. These ads remind me of some others I’ve seen recently – most notably the Cocaine Toothache Drops from the late 1800s(put that into google image and the first 10 images or so will display the ad). Think about the carb diet of the 70s. So frequently people go with the “today” approach instead of moderation (I’m certainly not suggesting moderation with cigarettes, but instead thinking about the different food diets where people cut out certain things completely while consuming way too much of other things because it’s the current “get thin quick” fad).
    I don’t know what the answer is – it’s this weird first world problem we face – being able to be pre-occupied with and focus on our body. Too many people see body image as a measure of self worth. My hope is that campaigns such as the no-fat talk movement, and others promoted to embrace your body as a vessel that helps you live your life catch on.

    • Katie says:

      Wow, just googled the Cocaine Toothache Drops…definitely haven’t seen that one before! Crazy stuff.

      You’re absolutely right that our body image issues stem in some ways from our positions of privilege and security. I too hope that we can keep spreading the word that body-acceptance is so much healthier than the dangerous weight-loss methods out there!

  18. Josie says:

    wow, did they ever surprise me! i definitely think people are still willing to take unhealthy measures to lose weight. i think of myself and all the ridiculous ways i’ve put my health in jeopardy while dieting.

    thank you, Katie, for all the support you show me on my blog. it means a lot to me that you read it!

    • Katie says:

      Thank YOU, Josie, for reading and commenting on my blog too! It means so much to me that you’ve been following along for so long. :)

  19. People definitely do unhealthy things in the name of thinness or burning calories. I say “people” when I should simply say “I.” I’ve done many stupid (in retrospect) things in the name of calorie burning. I wrote a guest post today on Kate’s blog, Walking in the Rain about my over-exercising experience that led me to a serious injury, lots of physical therapy, and finally a new revelation about the way I view exercise.

    In general, I think there’s more awareness about what’s bad for us… so ads are not quite so blatant. But I think it’s the subtle ads or suggestions that get inside of us if we’re not careful.

  20. Terry Earp says:

    Hi Katie, I enjoyed your article on managing holiday stress
    very much. This is the loneliest time of the year for some people
    and stress is very much a part of this. I am rather new at blogging
    but have enjoyed writing inspirational articles since my college
    days. I will try to stay up on your blog. Thank you and keep up the
    great work, Terry

  21. The smoking ads don’t surprise me, I’ve learned enough about drugs and alcohol use in school to know lots of drugs were used for weight control.

    I’m sure people are still willing to go great lengths to lose weight–anyone who is desperate to lose weight will consider using dangerous methods if they become desperate enough. I remember once when I learned in history about how women used to ingest tapeworms as a way to lose weight, I wondered briefly if I could find one to help me lose weight. (Good thing I was to depressed at the time to take the effort to find one.)

    • Katie says:

      Ohhhhh yes I’ve heard of that before too! Is it bizarre to say that I’m glad you were too depressed at that time too? Funny how some of the most challenging circumstances sometimes end up protecting us.

  22. [...] posted before about how women used to sacrifice their health for thinness, using methods such as swallowing tapeworms or smoking cigarettes for appetite [...]

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