Sunday, May 7, 2017

LDS Church, pols failed to enforce cigarette prohibition in 1920s Utah

One of the more amusing episodes in Utah history is the LDS Church-directed effort to ban cigarette smoking in the state. Passed by a compliant Legislature after a rapid, few-months campaign, the refusal of law enforcement authorities to enforce the law frustrated church leaders. However, once the law was finally enforced — with a high-profile arrest of four prominent Utah businessmen — Utah’s cigarette ban made the state a national laughingstock and the LDS Church, through editorials in its organ The Deseret News, paved the way for lawmakers to repeal the ban. The two-year-comedy is recounted by historian John H.S. Smith in the Fall 1973 issue of the Utah Historical Quarterly. As Smith writes, morality-based progressive movements across the USA, after achieving prohibition, reformers set looked toward tobacco.

“Thundered Billy Sunday in his most exuberant mood: ‘Prohibition is won; now for tobacco,’” writes Smith. In Utah, the move toward a law banning cigarettes online was signaled in late 1920 by articles and editorials against tobacco in church media, such as the D-News and The Improvement Era. As early as 1919, the LDS Church hierarchy assigned Apostle Stephen L. Richards to chair an anti-tobacco campaign. The Improvement Era “editorialized, ‘We believe that the abolition of the entire tobacco business would be beneficial to the higher interests of the human race,” writes Smith. Soon after, the Mutual Improvement Association, announced its slogan for 1920-21 “would be ‘We stand for the non-use and non-sale of tobacco.”

The committee chaired by Richards, then issued a newsletter that called for “‘coercive and persuasive’ measures to be carried out by special stake committees which were to work to interest the church membership in a greater awareness of the cigarette evil and the possibilities of prohibitory legislation.” All subtlety was cast aside after a church subcommittee issued recommendations that LDS stake presidents interview legislators to find out their attitudes on laws that would ban tobacco and/or cigarettes. Further measures, recounted by Smith, included a New Years anti-tobacco message from LDS Church President Heber J. Grant, and an article in the Young Women’s Journal “which outlined how each church organization was to cover some aspect of the antitobacco crusade,” writes Smith. While it’s not unusual for religious organizations to combat what it perceives as vice, the 1920-21 efforts assigned by the LDS leadership were specific designed to achieve a political goal — the abolition of cigarettes in Utah. On Jan. 19, 1921 following an anti-tobacco campaign in the D-News, state Sen. Edward Southwick introduced Senate Bill 12, which banned cigarettes and cigarette paper. The bill was muscled through the Legislature and signed by Utah Gov. Charles Mabey.

Its supporters were the LDS Church and other religious-based organizations. Opponents, as Smith recounts, were non-Mormon business interests and libertarian-minded citizens, including a few Mormons. The ban’s limitation to cigarettes reflected the times, when cigarettes were criticized for their cheapness and “unmanly” reputation compared to pipes. In fact, much of the anti-tobacco campaigns focused on the adverse effects of cigarettes on femininity. The National No-Tobacco Journal, in an editorial reprinted in The Improvement Era, had written, “How would you like to have women and girls, not only smoking the poisonous, stinking stuff, but chewing, slubbering and spitting the stuff around while they are baking the pies and the cookies?” (Smith UHQ footnote) So the bill was passed, and nothing changed.

Law enforcement organizations, clearly not thrilled about hunting down cigarette smokers and manufacturers, argued with each other over who should enforce Senate Bill 12. For 18 months the law was ignored. A frustrated Heber J. Grant, responding to increased suggestions that the law be repealed, “demanded that in the upcoming elections of 1922 the Latter-day Saints should vote for no candidate who will not declare his willingness to retain the anti-cigarette law on the statutes,” writes Smith. The comedy entered its climax stage when a bill to amend the law to focus on juveniles was proposed by state Sen. Henry N. Standish. It was quickly rebuffed in committee. Meanwhile, anti-tobacco advocates had found a public servant willing to arrest tobacco users. The new Salt Lake County sheriff, Benjamin R. Harries, orchestrated highly publicized arrest of four leading Utah businessmen for having an after-dinner smoke at a Utah diner.

The arrested were Ernest Bamberger, prominent Republican, Edgar L. Newhouse, director of the American Smelting and Refining Co., John C. Lynch, manager of the Salt Lake Ice Co., and A.N. McKay, the Salt Lake Tribune’s manager. According to Smith’s article, the four “were marched down Main Street to the county jail building on South Second East Street to be booked.” It must have been quite a sight. The clumsy, ham-handed gesture by Harries, no doubt approved by LDS Church leaders, attracted equal parts of media attention and censure. Smith notes, “Newspapers as far afield as Boston and San Francisco had an opportunity to wax indignant …” The Carrie Nation-ish Sheriff Harries did not stop his crusade. His deputies haunted hotels, restaurants and the state capitol arresting cigarette smokers, the more prominent the better. Outrage over Utah’s anti-tobacco law was soon accompanied by scorn and laughter by national critics. Local newspapers such as The Salt Lake Tribune were quick to point out Utah’s new, embarrassing national notoriety.

With a silly law, and a zealot to enforce it, backers of the ban, Smith notes, had gained a type of public indignation. Church leaders, very eager not to resurrect the kind of national animus against the Mormons that had only recently started to ebb, suddenly changed their tune about the recently defeated Standish amendment. On March 2, 1923, the Deseret News editorialized in favor of the Standish amendment as an alternative to the original SB 12 cigarette ban, which the editorial board lamented, would have succeeded had it been "vigorously enforced." (There is no small irony in those words, given that the law's demise was assured after it was "vigorously enforced.")

From that point, it didn't take long to repeal Utah's cigarette ban. By March 8, the Standish repeal bill had been signed into law by Gov. Mabey. 

As Standish points out, the flaw in the LDS Church's anti-tobacco campaign between 1921 to 1923 was its emphasis on prohibition, which clashed with the values of freedom and personal responsibility. 

He's correct in his assessment that had the church focused its efforts on education and propaganda, it would have likely been lauded for its tobacco eradication campaign of that era, which today is consigned to footnote status in Utah history.

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