Would Santa give you cancer? Not according to R. J. Reynolds, British American Tobacco, Philip and Morris, and other tobacco companies. They regularly used the jolly cultural icon to advertise cigarettes and other products during the early to mid-20th century.
Print advertisements of the time often featured Santa savoring a smoke, presumably after a long night of delivering gifts. Such imagery suggests that he had earned the indulgence, and that consumers had too. For example, a 1920 advertisement for Murad Cigarettes shows Santa leaning against a chimney smoking, with the caption, “What could you Enjoy more this Xmas than MURAD?”
The tobacco industry also encouraged customers to purchase and give cigarettes as Christmas gifts. R. J. Reynolds provided some retailers with store displays to market products, including cardboard cutouts of Santa holding cartons of holiday wrapped Camels cigarettes. Likewise, British American Tobacco supplied retailers with Christmas-themed packages, such as cartons of Pall Malls picturing Santa smoking and wishing customers a Merry Christmas.
Print advertisements conveyed similar messages. In a 1931 Player’s Please advertisement (manufactured by Imperial Tobacco Group), Santa reminded shoppers that “The ‘Present’ time is very near.” R. J. Reynolds advertisements from the 1950s showed Santa declaring that Camel, Cavalier, Winston, and Prince Albert were “4 Of The Grandest Gifts You Can Give.”
Pairing images of cigarettes with a benevolent figure like Santa Claus reinforced the notion that the products were safe. However, researchers had started to formally document the connection between smoking and lung cancer as early as the 1930s. And the tobacco industry itself (internally) documented links between the two in the early 1950s. By 1964, the causal connection was clear. In his “Smoking and Health” report, Surgeon General Luther Terry concluded that smoking caused lung cancer, and suggested that a causal link between smoking and heart disease also existed. That same year, almost one-half of Americans reported being smokers.
Advertising certainly contributed (and continues to contribute) to the behavior, as research reported by the World Health Organization indicates. Then, as today, the tobacco industry lured customers to its addictive and harmful products in enticing and jolly ways.
Jacqueline Clark, PhD is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Department at Ripon College. Her research focuses on inequalities, the sociology of health and illness, and the sociology of jobs, work, and organizations.