The Village Idiot: Where there’s no smoke…


By Jim Mullen
Signal Contributing Writer

What happened to all the cigarette machines that used to be in every store, bar and gas station in the country not so many years ago?

In case you’re under 40, these were big, heavy machines, about half the size of a soda vending machine, loaded up with the top-selling brands of cigarettes: Marlboros, Winstons, Camels, Kools, Merits and maybe a dozen others. They were truly everywhere. At one time, they were more common than ATM machines.

So, where are they now?

It’s not as if you could just dump a million or two of these big hunks of metal in the local landfill. Or hey, maybe you could. As L.P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” It’s hard to imagine some of the things we did not so long ago that were normal at the time.

When I grew up in Virginia, a pack of cigarettes was 23 cents. You’d put a quarter in the machine, pull the lever, and a pack of cigarettes would fall out with 2 cents change in the wrapper. I was 13 when I bought my first pack. I stopped smoking when they were $2.25 a pack. Last week, I saw a pack of cigarettes for sale for $11.25 at a convenience store. You’d need to take out a loan to buy a whole carton.

I think the minimum wage was $1.10 an hour when cigarettes were 23 cents, and gas was also around 25 cents a gallon. Four gallons of gas for an hour’s work. 15 minutes of work for a pack of cigarettes. Is it any wonder more people smoked? And we knew it was unhealthy, even if the proof was long in coming. No one’s parents said, “Please, start smoking, it’s so good for you.” There was no pushback for smoking in public places.

Then things changed. Too slowly for nonsmokers, too quickly for smokers.

Still, what happened to all those cigarette machines? I see old pinball machines in people’s houses, vintage cars on the road, and my sister-in-law has an old slot machine in her living room — which I still never win — yet I never see cigarette machines in man caves. I don’t even see them in movies set a few decades in the past, even though they were such a common sight.

I think the machines also dispensed a book of matches with each pack. How long has it been since you’ve seen a book of matches? They, too, used to be everywhere. Next to the cash register at every diner, on the nightstand in every hotel room.

The funny thing is, not all of us smoked, even at the height of smoking culture. Even if you didn’t smoke, there would be an ashtray on every table. There were “smoking sections” on planes, as if the smoke wasn’t going to reach the nonsmokers. Can you imagine walking into a restaurant full of smoke today? Even people who still smoke would find it odd.

I was just in Europe, where it seemed that everyone smoked. That’s not really true, but here, the smokers are in their cars, not walking from place to place like the Europeans.

It’s hard to remember how normal smoking used to be. My mother used to leave cartons of cigarettes for the garbage men as a Christmas present. Back then, it was considered a nice gesture. Today, you’d wonder what was wrong with her. My friend Arne, who lives in a state with legalized marijuana, told me that he was in a shop that sold all kinds of dope-smoking paraphernalia looking to buy a new bong when an old guy came in and bought a pack of cigarettes. Arne said, “All I could think was, ‘What’s wrong with this guy, still smoking cigarettes? Doesn’t he know how bad that is for his health? That should be illegal.'”
Contact Jim Mullen at [email protected].

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