Lucy Page Gaston

Anti-Smoking Crusader

Often compared to Carry Nation, Lucy Page Gaston fought her whole life to convince the nation that cigarettes were evil. She nearly achieved a statewide ban in Illinois in 1907.

Born in Ohio in 1860, Gaston’s family had a history of fighting for prohibition and abolition. When she went on to higher education at Illinois State Normal School, she led raids on saloons, gambling houses, and tobacco stores.1

Referring to cigarettes as “coffin nails,” she saw them as dangerous to the health and morality of all. While walking the streets, if she witnessed a child smoking, (which was rather commonplace at the time), she would immediately drag them to the police.

In order to further her agenda, Gaston founded the Anti-Cigarette League in Chicago in 1899. Within two years they claimed 300,000 members and published a magazine, “The Boy,” which aimed to show just how harmful these “coffin nails” were.2 To keep the youth away from temptation, the organization hosted dances, sponsored sports teams and held essay writing contests.

By the next year, she had succeeded in getting some major companies in Chicago to prohibit smoking by their employees, including giant Montgomery Ward. The police would even deputize her, giving Gaston the power to arrest underage smokers. Public officials, she declared, needed to set an example and stop using cigarettes themselves. To help them quit she offered cures, which included a fruit diet and the use of the gentian plant. Many realized, however, that all of the demonization of cigarettes simply made it more attractive to many boys.3

Year after year she would sit in on Chicago City Council meetings, attempting to get them to restrict cigarettes.4 Her ceaseless lobbying finally succeeded in 1907, as lawmakers made it illegal to make, sell, or give away cigarettes in the state of Illinois. Those defying the ban would face a $100 fine, with up to 30 days in jail.5

The law was slated to go into effect on July 1, 1907, but was challenged in court and defeated on a technicality. Cook County Superior Court Judge Axel Chytraus declared that the law was inconsistent - the title described it as an act to “regulate” cigarettes, when it was in fact outright prohibition. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld the decision, and Gaston would never again come close to her goal.

Attempting to take her fight to the national scene, Gaston ran for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1920, getting nowhere. The next year, the Anti-Cigarette League fired Gaston, seeing her as being too radical. After this fall, she would all but disappear from the political scene, ultimately dying from throat cancer.6

  1. Loerzel, Robert. “The Smoking Gun.” Chicago Magazine Jan. 2008: 92-95, 198-199 Pg. 95
  2. Loerzel, 198
  3. Loerzel, 199
  4. Loerzel, 94
  5. Loerzel, 199
  6. Loerzel, 199
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