When Al Feldstein, the long-time editor of Mad magazine, died, in April, no one mentioned one of his major accomplishments: warning millions of impressionable boys and girls of the perils of smoking. Had the tobacco industry paid more attention, he might also have saved it billions of dollars a few decades down the road.
In the early to mid-nineteen-sixties, both before and after the Surgeon General issued his famous report on the dangers of tobacco, Mad took on the industry more than any “respectable” magazine. Free from any dependency on advertising, Mad could be fearless, and it was. Its campaign of ridicule was unrelenting.
The magazine attacked not just the tobacco giants but the folks on Madison Avenue who hawked the poisonous products—many of whom, it noted, were too smart to smoke themselves. Smokers weren’t spared either. (Who can forget Mad regular David Berg’s feature “Lighter Side of Smoking,” whose first panel showed a man looking out a window at night as a blizzard rages. “Gad, look at the miserable weather!” he declares. “Boy, nothing could make me go outdoors!” In the second panel, the man, eyes popping out, rummages frantically through a drawer in search of a smoke. In the third, he’s huddled grimly over the steering wheel driving to the store, his wipers and headlights fighting through the snow.)
Fifty years later, many who read Mad devotedly still remember the anti-smoking crusade. The ads closely resembled the real ones that ran on television and in magazines. There was the one for “Marble Row” funeral directors, showing horses grazing in a graveyard. “You Get a Plot You Like,” it declared. Or the ad promising that “Likely Strife separates the men from the boys … but not from the doctors.” (“Smoking is a habit we’d like to get all you kids hooked on,” it continued. “Smoke Likely Strife—and you’ll discover one other thing: You’ll also be separated from your health!”)
There were the ads that ever-adaptable advertisers had prepared in light of health warnings. One featured “Chesterfoggies” (for people already hooked); another suggested that the perils of smoking only made it sexier—“Winsom impresses good…Like smoking a cigarette should.” A third ad featured Adolf Hitler, another favorite Mad target (and, oddly enough, a virulent enemy of tobacco himself). “In the 30s and 40s we knocked off millions of people and filled countless cemeteries,” he declared. “That’s nothing! I want to talk about a really fantastic cemetery filler!” Another, featuring a man with a Tareyton-like black eye, read, “Us Cigarette-Makers will rather fight than quit.”
Mad not only lampooned cigarette makers but offered its own Swiftian—part Jonathan, part Tom—remedies for the scourge, like newfangled cigarette filters to mitigate smoking’s ills. There was the “swell filter,” made up of paper so absorbent that, when saturated with saliva, it was impenetrable; cigarettes that were ninety per cent filters and, therefore, ninety per cent safer; “litmus filters,” specially designed to turn the scary, sickly brown of diseased lungs; “noise maker filters,” which simulated wheezing and gasping; and screw-in “add-a-filters,” laden with penicillin or Dramamine or fluoride or Neo-Synephrine nasal spray, so that at least something good could come with all the carcinogens.
“Smoking has been linked with so many horrible sicknesses, you’d imagine that everybody would be giving it up,” Mad’s editors—a.k.a. “the usual gang of idiots”—noted in the December, 1964, issue. But since they couldn’t, the magazine offered “these poor trapped souls” devices for “safer smoking.” Here the magazine was clairvoyant. Long before the industry realized it,Mad recognized that, while smokers would always smoke, they would go for contraptions that lessened the harm or, if they could, abandon tobacco altogether.
Some of the ideas were non-starters, like “disposable lung-liner tips”—small plastic bags attached to cigarette ends that would inflate as smokers inhaled, lining and protecting their insides. (Afterwards, you’d just yank them out.) Portable nasal exhaust fans, to be affixed to eyeglasses or ears or hidden in beards, would draw smoke through and out the nose before it could do any harm. And heat-conducting metallic rods, inserted into cigarettes once they were lit, would burn lips to a crisp and thereby make it virtually impossible to smoke.
But the truly prescient invention was the “smoke simulator”: a cork-tipped Pyrex tube containing small amounts of water, which, like the metal rod, would be inserted into a cigarette. Once the cigarette was lit, the cork at one end of the tube (edible, of course) popped out, and the water inside became steam. When inhaled, the steam would feel just like smoke. Had the tobacco companies picked up that issue of Mad instead of ignoring it or seething over it, they might have saved the billions they are spending to snap up vaporizer manufacturers now that e-cigarettes are all the rage. That would give new meaning to the line on the corner of every Mad cover: “Our Price 25c Cheap.”
That smoke simulator, like many of Mad’s anti-smoking devices, was the creation of Al Jaffee, who was also the inventor of the magazine’s famous “fold-ins” and a former smoker himself. Perhaps because Mad’s offices were largely smoke-free—its publisher, William Gaines, was fanatically opposed to the habit—its writers and editors have lived long lives: Feldstein was eighty-eight when he died; Jaffee is now ninety-three. He isn’t seeking any royalties from e-cigarette manufacturers. “I do the obvious,” he told me. “And then society slowly catches up.”