The Cigarette Ban of the 1920s Caused an Uproar

W. Paul Reeve
History Blazer, February 1995

On February 24, 1923, a determined crowd of Utah citizens packed the Orpheum Theater in Salt Lake City to voice their “emphatic condemnation” of Utah’s “freak” anti-cigarette law. The meeting was organized by a committee of businessmen spurred into action by the arrest of several well-known citizens on charges of smoking in public dining rooms.

The Utah State Legislature had passed the cigarette ban in 1921, but it was never significantly enforced until the early part of 1923 when police officers began arresting Utahns for smoking in public places. Four prominent Utah businessmen, including Ernest Bamberger, National Republican committeeman and former senatorial candidate, were netted for smoking after-dinner cigars in the Vienna Cafe in Salt Lake City. Such drastic measures soon caught national attention, and one speaker at the mass meeting for the law’s repeal claimed that “Utah . . . is being ridiculed from ocean to ocean and from Canada to the gulf . . . because of its freak legislation.” Another critic claimed the cigarette law was “obnoxious” to a large number of Utahns and was “a check on personal liberty.” Other opponents of the law claimed that the ban on the sale of cigarettes had failed to deter smoking and instead had given rise to bootlegging. In fact, one speaker, H. R. Macmillan, asserted that more cigarettes were being sold in Utah in 1923 than had been sold before the ban.

It was not long before the State Legislature responded to the uproar over the unpopular law. On March 9, 1923, lawmakers nullified the ban and enacted legislation that permitted the licensed sale of cigarettes and the advertising of tobacco. Many provisions of the bill were hotly debated. Some wanted to maintain the prohibition on advertising to prevent the state’s young people from being tempted. One lawmaker proposed an amendment that would have divided restaurants into smoking and nonsmoking sections. The proposal, however, was voted down after another legislator cited one Salt Lake City establishment that had attempted such a division. It seemed to that date there had been no meals served in the nonsmoking dining area. The final bill, which limited advertising to newspapers and permitted the sale of cigarettes only by licensed businesses, passed the House on a vote of 33 to 20. The Senate concurred without discussion. Ironically, the State Legislature would pass another ban against smoking in public places 71 years later. It went into effect January 1, 1995. Concerned about the possible danger of breathing second-hand smoke, many Utahns embraced the measure, and hardly anyone dared to call it “freak” legislation.

For additional information see John S. H. Smith, “Cigarette Prohibition in Utah, 1921–23,” Utah Historical Quarterly 41 (fall 1973): 358–72.