The Last Page

Confessions of a Campus Tobacco Pusher

By Elizabeth R. Buttenheim ’48

In the early autumn of 1946, I learned that Phillip Morris paid $25 a month to college students to give away cigarettes on campus. That was more than small change in those days and sounded like easy money; I wrote to ask if I could be their Vassar representative. I was given an appointment at the New York office as I was about to begin my junior year, and was given the job.

This was the deal. Every week I would receive a shipment of cigarettes packaged in 1,000 small boxes, two cigarettes to a box, and a regular carton of cigarettes. The samples I was to hand out to students; the carton was for my own use. There was a form to be filled out weekly and returned to the Phillip Morris office. Piece of cake—or so I thought.

But a couple of problems soon became evident. One was that whoever dreamed up this idea had probably never been to college himself. He apparently envisioned a sort of radio commercial type of scenario:

Me (Walking across campus and meeting another student): "Would you like to try this free sample of Phillip Morris cigarettes?"

Other student (lighting up and taking a drag): "Thanks. Hey, this is a great cigarette. Mild but rich. Phillip Morris, eh? I guess I’ll have to switch brands."

The reality was that there was no way that I or any other sane student was going to hand out all those cigarettes each week on an individual basis. And if I had, no one would have stopped to smoke or comment when rushing to or from class or the library or the gym. In fact, nobody ever made any kind of comment, except maybe, "Thanks. Can I have one for my roommate?"

My solution to this problem was to take about 200 packets every night and put them out on the tables in one or another of the dormitory parlors, where it was the custom to gather after dinner for coffee and a smoke. As for the comments that I had to fill in on the weekly report, I’m afraid I just made them up. There was space for about a dozen every week, as I recall, and it required considerable ingenuity to avoid repetition. After all, there are limits to the variety of remarks one might make about a cigarette. Sometimes I filled in with a few negative comments, such as, "This is much too strong for me, and I don’t like the taste." I figured anybody who actually believed that college students talked about cigarettes instead of important things like their dates, their weekend plans, and Schopenhauer deserved a little deception.

My other problem with my job, and one that made me totally unsuited for it, was that I was then and have always been a nonsmoker. In spite of being from Richmond, Virginia, the center of the tobacco industry, where all my friends began to smoke in their early teens, and in spite of—or, more accurately, because of—my parents’ heavy smoking, I hated cigarettes and smoking with all the passion of Carrie Nation storming a saloon. My nonhabit was a boon to my friends, who got my carton of cigarettes every week, but it created a difficulty for me when my supervisor came to call, as he did about four times that year. He was a pleasant enough but unprepossessing Phillip Morris employee whose visits to me on campus lasted about two hours. He asked me about reactions to the giveaway program, and we checked sales together at the college store. He chain-smoked and offered me a cigarette every time he lit up. The challenge for me was to find a different excuse for refusing each time. From "I’ve just had one," when he first arrived," to "My sinuses are acting up," to "The doctor says for me to give it up until my sore throat gets better," to "I really have to cut back a little,"—I used every ploy in the book to avoid smoking. If he realized I was ducking, he was kind enough not to let on.

I am not proud of my role in this charade. Of course, we didn’t know then all the damage that smoking could do. My parents and my brother had not yet developed the smoking-related diseases that later took their lives. But I believed that smoking was a nasty habit, and yet for $25 a month, I was willing to encourage others to take up or continue this habit. Small wonder then that for billions of dollars, the tobacco industry has done everything in its power to market its product, including developing the habit in the very young. And I played a role, albeit a small one, in that marketing scheme. Sometimes I wonder if any of my classmates are ill or have died because they got hooked on cigarettes from those little packets I left on the tables in the parlors at Vassar. Sometimes I wonder.