Giving Students a New Perspective

Once upon a time, tobacco-related diseases were extremely rare. However, all that changed in the twentieth century after advertising campaigns made smoking a socially acceptable and even glamorous activity. It was romantic and sexy. Everybody smoked, even health care professionals. In 1943 a smiling Navy nurse lighting the cigarette of an apparently wounded but smiling soldier graced the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. You could light up on an airplane or in a theater. Even five years ago, smoking was prevalent in major movies.

For UCLA students who never knew tobacco's golden age, seeing cigarette advertisements and other historic artifacts and learning about how the tobacco industry misled the public about the dangers of smoking is a real eye-opener. A new Fiat Lux course at UCLA, “Breathe Well: Tobacco-Free UCLA Medicine, Nursing, and Public Health,” familiarized students with this bygone era and with the nationwide campaign that ended it. “We wanted students to understand that there was a time when the tobacco industry used glamour, celebrity, and even health care professionals to carry their message,” said Linda Sarna, interim dean at the UCLA School of Nursing and co-chair of the Tobacco-Free Steering Committee at UCLA, along with Dr. Michael Ong.

Because advertising played a major role in creating a culture of tobacco acceptance, the students visited the Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library’s rare book room to see an exhibit of anti- and pro-smoking materials organized by Russell Johnson, curator of the history of medicine and sciences. “Perhaps the most interesting item, and my personal favorite, was a 1939 article from Life Magazine that described how Florence E. Linden, a registered nurse and ex-actress, lectured women on the etiquette of smoking,” said Sarna. So, asked Sarna, what can be learned from looking at the past?

While cigarettes may be passé, and smoking them makes you a pariah in some places, the use of e- cigarettes and hookah are on the rise, students learned. Their marketing campaigns are taking a page right from the pages of the tobacco industry, Ong said. “Sex. Being cool. Making health claims. All sorts of similar parallels,” he said. "But instead of colorful newspaper and magazine ads or 30-second TV spots, marketing is now done through social media." Student Sean Ezenwugo said the class gave him a new perspective. "The biggest lesson I learned came from being in the presence of the professors. They were not only instructors, but also role models of what a tobacco-free life can look like: optimistic, realistic, well-informed, and driven to make a change."

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