Smoke and Mirrors: Disney, Big Tobacco, and the Selling of American Unreality

By Grafton Tanner / September 11, 2017Between 1955 and 1991, Disneyland ran a Tobacco Shop on Main Street U.S.A. A model of the wider American society outside the groomed insularity of the Anaheim theme park, Main Street boasted an assortment of shops that mirrored the small towns that would vanish over the course of the twentieth century. Nestled between a cinema and a magic shop, the Tobacco Shop sold cigarettes, pipes, pipe tobacco, and other smoking accessories. After buying your favorite pipe blend, you could visit the “local” ice cream parlor or perhaps the Main Street Flower Mart, which specialized in beautiful arrangements of plastic flowers. “If you want an outdoor flower market with real flowers,” Werner Weiss at Yesterland writes, “you’ll have to go to a real city.”

But which is the real city, Main Street U.S.A. or an American metropolis like Los Angeles? “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real,” Jean Baudrillard writes in the opening chapter of Simulacra and Simulation (1981), “whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real.” Indeed, it could very well be that the cities outside Disneyland are ultimately of a lesser reality. Urban theorists have looked to Main Street U.S.A. for inspiration in designing cities to better soothe citizens and tourists and to lessen the anxiety of an imposing cityscape. “[D]evelopers of care facilities for dementia patients have replicated Main Street U.S.A. in common spaces whose landmarks and street activity are intended to comfort residents with reminders of a small-town past,” writes Charles Montgomery. It seems many people desperately try to capture the nostalgic tranquility that Main Street U.S.A. sells.

Like the Tobacco Shop, the Carnation Ice Cream Parlor and the Flower Mart are both closed, but Main Street U.S.A. remains. It is the prime example of the blight of unreality that continues to spread to American cities and Western society at large. For over eighty years, Disney has set the public agenda, dictating through its massive appeal what is “real” and what is not. “If we imagine the Disney Company as a teaching machine,” Henry Giroux writes, “it becomes clear that Disney wields enormous influence on the cultural life of the nation, especially with regard to the culture of children.” At the core of this “teaching machine,” certain themes appear often: follow your dreams, true love exists, live happily ever after, and other equally elementary platitudes. These themes are adjusted when Western culture adopts slightly different mores, but, for the most part, Disney is a consistent, well-oiled, and educative machine that sells ideas about how we might live. It both creates culture and takes cues from the culture outside the walls of the theme parks.

The Disneyland Tobacco Shop, circa 1957. Photo: Tom Simpson

In the twenty-first century, Main Street U.S.A. resembles something that never existed: a Mayberry-like diorama of a working-class utopia, but even its reference point—the actual small, mid-century American town—has been drained lifeless by insatiable late capitalism. The Tobacco Shop may have been lost to scientific “progress,” but the fake town’s quaint storefronts make believe that owning a business is still as easy as front porches and barbershops. The facade must seem cute to those who have never seen a small American town in this present century; to those who have, it is likely insulting.

The power of Disney can be analyzed through the company’s relationship with tobacco, and several glaring similarities exist between the megacorporation’s view of smoking and the American public’s. And although it seems that Disney has helped lead the way to a smoke-free future (and past), there are other social issues the company is not so ready to tackle. The Disneyland Tobacco Shop is closed, but the cigar store Indian remains on the sidewalk. Most areas in all Disney parks are smoke-free, but racism endures.

Tobacco is as American as Disney, and the history of tobacco is stitched within the wider narrative of America and its exploitation of marginalized groups. In order to turn a profit during the twentieth century, both Big Tobacco and Disney targeted children and adults alike with massive advertising campaigns, many of which featured Native Americans and African Americans in exoticized fashion. This trend of stereotyping people of color to sell a product has roots in the long history of American subjugation. European man, driven by dreams of fantastical gold fields in the Americas, slaughtered and enslaved the tribes of Arawaks, Powhatans, Pequots, and other native peoples deemed savage and ignoble during the earliest trips to the New World. He brought with him disease and the lust for money; the first American tobacco was harvested in 1612 by Jamestown settler John Rolfe, who married Pocahantas, the daughter of the Powhatan chief, two years later.

1932 print advertisement for Lucky Strike cigarettes, illustrated by N.C. Wyeth

Indian tribes had been growing and smoking tobacco, often ceremonially, long before European conquerors arrived in the Americas. For many tribes, tobacco was considered a spiritual gift, something delivered from a divine source, and smoking was sometimes used to settle disputes. For European nobility, it was a cash crop. England loved tobacco, and the colonies were starved for funds. The rulers of the New World ratcheted up tobacco production by enslaving the American Indians, and when that wasn’t enough, they sailed their chattel ships to the African continent, thus beginning the American system of black slavery. “Finding that, like all pleasurable drugs tainted with moral disapproval, [tobacco] brought a high price,” writes Howard Zinn in A People’s History of the United States, “the planters, despite their high religious talk, were not going to ask questions about something so profitable.”

When wealthy white Americans realized they could no longer control the bodies of blacks and American Indians, they instead controlled their images, using the worst of stereotypes to popularize, among other activities, smoking, which is considered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be the leading preventable cause of death in the United States. There was Warpath Tobacco, which featured an image of bare-chested American Indians on horseback striking combative poses. An ad for Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco featured a young black girl eating a watermelon slice with the phrase, “My! It shure am Sweet Tastan,” below her. Marketed as the leaf of the educated, pipe tobacco often sported brand names of white explorers and royalty, such as Sir Walter Raleigh and Prince Albert. To this day, the mascot of Natural American Spirit products is a smoking Native American donning a headdress.

Since the Disneyland Tobacco Shop closed in the early ’90s, Disney has embarked on a campaign to scrub its past relationship with tobacco in order to keep current with the public health initiatives to curb smoking in the US. The irony, of course, is that Walt Disney himself died of lung cancer in 1966, and several Disney cartoons feature smoking characters, such as (among others) Goofy, Pinocchio, and Cruella de Vil. In Disney’s adaptation of Peter Pan, the highest-grossing film of 1953, the title character smokes a ceremonial pipe in a particularly stereotypical scene involving several Native Americans who sing a musical number entitled, “What Made the Red Man Red?”

Walt Disney tried to kick the habit his entire life but could not. Rumor has it that he frequented the Disneyland Tobacco Shop for his cigarettes. His smoking addiction lent him a signature cough that many in his inner circle knew well. The photos of Walt on display at Disneyland have been bowdlerized to remove his usual cigarette between his two fingers. The resulting images are of Walt with two fingers jutting awkwardly, a gesture performed by Tom Hanks as the partially bowdlerized Walt in the 2013 film Saving Mr. Banks.

A scene from the Disney animated short “No Smoking” (1951), in which Goofy tries—unsuccessfully—to quit smoking

An entire generation in America was hooked on smoking even after the medical establishment warned of the adverse health effects. How pervasive were the tobacco companies of the last century? So much so that they lobbied for soldiers to receive cigarettes in their rations during the First and Second World Wars. They also paid famous Hollywood actors and actresses to smoke in films during the 1930s and ’40s. Like Disney, these seemingly unstoppable tobacco companies used their massive marketing powers to teach Western culture lessons that served only their corporate interests. If you want to be as cool as Clark Gable, you should smoke cigarettes. If you want to be happy, follow your dreams. Do what you love; reach for a Lucky.

Thanks to the public health initiatives to educate others about the harmful effects of tobacco, the modern Western world has seen a decline in smoking, and more expansive regulations are now targeting cigars, pipes, and electronic cigarettes. In a strange twist, marijuana for recreational and medical use is now legal in eight US states—but tobacco still causes a national uproar. The FDA’s “Deeming Rule,” which would extend the regulations first established in the Tobacco Control Act of 2009, has seen delays and sparked impassioned rhetoric. Trump’s administration is staffed with officials connected to the tobacco and e-cigarette industry. Among them is FDA commissioner, physician, and former KURE Corp board member Scott Gottlieb. KURE, an electronic cigarette company that thinks of vaping as a “full-blown phenomena” that is “grass roots,” has eleven vape lounges in three states. The vaping community hopes that Gottlieb will not target electronic cigarettes if the FDA’s regulations push through. The jury is still out, but what is certain is that Gottlieb will continue to use the FDA as a tool to stamp out small, local tobacconists while ensuring some form of Big Tobacco reigns widely.

The fight over tobacco continues, and this fight mirrors a larger one raging between the government-corporate complex and the people of the United States. Big Coal and Big Tobacco have the ear of Trump, and any decision he makes surely benefits his friends heading these multinational corporations. To remove green legislation so that coal CEOs can continue to reap the benefits of a warming planet, Trump promises the “miners are coming back.” To help out his friends in Big Tobacco, he may collaborate with Gottlieb to alter the “Deeming Rule” and cite his support of the people for doing so.

Yet “the people” do not include the Native Americans who protested the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock Indian Reservation—the people who offered tobacco to their ancestors at the protest site long before Trump issued an executive order for the pipeline to be constructed with no further environmental impact review. There can be no better society when these acts of resistance are silenced by the boot heel of the neoliberal police state, one that parrots simple, Disney-approved themes to distract everyone from a globalized world teetering on the brink. It is foolish to believe our nominally healthy, smoke-free society—which often cites the harmful effects of smoking but still cannot come to terms with non-white, non-heteronormative cultures—is freer, more progressive, and post-racial. Twenty-first century America is just Main Street U.S.A., a whitewashed, sterile simulation of a fake utopia. If you look hard enough, you can see the cigar store Indian, a crack in the veneer that lets in the real.


Grafton Tanner is a writer and musician from Georgia. His book, Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts, was published by Zero Books in 2016. His writing has appeared in The Hong Kong Review of Books and Film Matters. He is a classically trained percussionist and is working on a short story collection.

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2 thoughts on “Smoke and Mirrors: Disney, Big Tobacco, and the Selling of American Unreality

  1. I remember going to Walt Disney World on my Senior class trip(1986) and being amazed that you couldn’t buy or chew gum in the Magic Kingdom but could buy cigarettes and smoke there.

  2. Pingback: Smoke and Mirrors: Disney, Big Tobacco, and the Selling of American Unreality – Grafton Tanner

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