On April 1, 1970, President Richard Nixon signs legislation officially banning cigarette ads on television and radio. Nixon, who enjoyed the occasional cigar, supported the legislation at the increasing insistence of public health advocates.
Alarming health studies emerged as early as 1939 that linked cigarette smoking to higher incidences of cancer and heart disease and, by the end of the 1950s, all states had laws prohibiting the sale of cigarettes to minors. In 1964, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) agreed that advertisers had a responsibility to warn the public of the health hazards of cigarette smoking. In 1969, after the surgeon general of the United States released an official report linking cigarette smoking to low birth weight, Congress yielded to pressure from the public health sector and signed the Cigarette Smoking Act. This act required cigarette manufacturers to place warning labels on their products that stated “Cigarette Smoking May be Hazardous to Your Health.”
By the early 1970s, the fight between the tobacco lobby and public health interests forced Congress to draft legislation to regulate the tobacco industry and special committees were convened to hear arguments from both sides. Public health officials and consumers wanted stronger warning labels on tobacco products and their advertisements banned from television and radio, where they could easily reach impressionable children. (Tobacco companies were the single largest product advertisers on television in 1969.) Cigarette makers defended their industry with attempts to negate the growing evidence that nicotine was addictive and that cigarette smoking caused cancer. Though they continued to bombard unregulated print media with ads for cigarettes, tobacco companies lost the regulatory battle over television and radio. The last televised cigarette ad ran at 11:50 p.m. during The Johnny Carson Show on January 1, 1971.
Tobacco has played a part in the lives of presidents since the country’s inception. A hugely profitable crop in early America, Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Jackson owned tobacco plantations and used tobacco in the form of snuff or smoked cigars. Regulation of the tobacco industry in the form of excise taxes began during Washington’s presidency and continues to this day. In 1962, John F. Kennedy became the first president to sponsor studies on smoking and public health.
Tobacco has not been the only thing smoked at the White House. In 1978, after country-music entertainer Willie Nelson performed for President Carter there, he is said to have snuck up to the roof and surreptitiously smoked what he called a big fat Austin torpedo, commonly known as marijuana.