“It was the last time I ever smoked a cigarette on the golf course.”
The speaker is the man whom many consider the greatest golfer ever, Jack Nicklaus. Fifty years ago, he was watching a recent film of himself winning his first major golf championship, the U.S. Open. What upset him were not the missed putts and chunked chip shots, but the sight of himself smoking as he played.
“It was the worst example for youth I can imagine,” Nicklaus says in a documentary about the 1962 Open, now playing on the Golf Channel.
He decided then to quit smoking while playing golf. Years later, he gave up smoking altogether, according to Ross Greenburg, who produced the documentary.
The Nicklaus anecdote came to mind as the Associated Press reported Thursday that according to Georgia public health officials, almost half of the state’s school districts have implemented a 100 percent tobacco-free policy.
Under the policy, no student, staff member or school visitor is permitted to use any tobacco product or E-cigarette, at any time on school property.
“Many of these initiatives are youth-led and involve securing school board approval,’’ June Deen, state director of the American Lung Association, told GHN on Thursday. “This is not always a simple process. These measures are campus-wide and most include their sporting events — Friday night football, for example. “
The 1960s, of course, was a different time, when smoking was much more broadly accepted. The current AMC “Mad Men’’ TV show, set in that decade, shows its main character practically chain-smoking throughout the episodes.
That decade followed an era when leading men and women commonly smoked in movies. In the 1940s, cigarettes seemed a standard prop in films. It was almost romantic, Humphrey Bogart lighting Lauren Bacall’s cigarette, and then his own.
In 1964, two years after Nicklaus’ first big win, more than 50 percent of adult males smoked. Considerable numbers of Americans disapproved of tobacco for cultural and religious reasons, and the opinion that it was “bad for you” was hardly unknown. But smoking was generally not seen as a serious public health menace. Lighting up was accepted in almost every business and social setting in the nation.
But that year, the U.S. Surgeon General’s report came out with the conclusion that smoking causes cancer.
Since then, the public’s concern about the dangers of smoking has increased substantially. And tobacco use has dropped now to the 20 percent range.
Still, Georgia has a ways to go on the tobacco issue. On a tobacco prevention report card issued in January, the state received F’s in three categories — tobacco prevention funding, tobacco taxes and smoking cessation coverage.
The annual report from the American Lung Association gave Georgia only one passing grade — a C for state smoking restrictions, thanks to a 2005 state law that prohibits lighting up in most indoor places.
“Georgia continues to fall behind in reducing the burden of tobacco use,’’ said Deen of the American Lung Association to GHN in January. “It’s the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S.’’
“Georgia does less to help smokers quit, and takes less advantage of cigarette tax revenues and the benefits of helping smokers quit,’’ Deen added. The state’s tobacco tax is the fourth-lowest in the nation.
Nearly 100 percent of adults who smoke every day started smoking when they were 26 or younger, so the school districts’ action may pay off. Smokers often start the habit in their teens.
The Georgia Department of Public Health says 87 of the state’s 181 school districts, or 48 percent, are on board. Health officials say they still have a lot of work to do this year to get the remaining school districts to adopt a tobacco-free policy.
Nicklaus’ story on his smoking was something that Greenburg wasn’t about to leave out of his documentary on the 1962 U.S. Open.
“We have Jack telling the story,” Greenburg said. “It was a time period where people are just smoking and not thinking about the ramifications. It’s interesting that at 22, Jack figured out at that point that it’s not the way to act as a role model. When he saw that film, he was taken aback.”
Today, unlike past generations, few professional golfers smoke while playing.
Role models are important to youth. And so are rules banning smoking.
While public health advocates regret that the Legislature has repeatedly failed to raise the state’s cigarette tax, they can point to other progress against tobacco use, school district by school district.
“In an otherwise dismal picture of low tobacco taxes, minimal tobacco prevention funding and little movement in comprehensive local smoke-free air ordinances,’’ the schools’ action ”is a bright spot,” Deen told GHN. “They are to be commended for their success.’’