No Butts About It

A graduate of Vietnam-era activism can't kick the habit of pushing for social change.

November/December 1996

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No Butts About It

Those of us who went to college after 1975 are sometimes sorry we missed out on the glory days of campus activism. Students of the '60s and early '70s were passionate--at times excessively so--about politics and the world around them. Of course, the issues of the day were monumental: civil rights, Vietnam, Watergate. When I was at Stanford in the early '80s, about the most activism we could muster was a sit-in when Meyer Library announced it would reduce its weekend hours.

Sure, the frenzied activism of 1965-75 has been a bit over-romanticized. At least as many students were busy with the usual campus pastimes--classes, parties, football games, job interviews--as were protesting in White Plaza. And it was a minority of students torching draft cards and University buildings. But even accounting for the hype, an irrefutable truth remains: There was an impressive core of students who devoted their campus days to social change--and some of them have not given up the fight.

Stanton Glantz was an applied mechanics PhD student in the early '70s when he took an interest in Pentagon-funded research at Stanford. By poking around campus files, prodding the faculty and poring over Defense Department records, Glantz made a general nuisance of himself. He also proved that many professors were doing research with direct applications to the war in Vietnam--even though some of them did not know it.

Twenty-five years later, Glantz is still taking on big guns. Now a medical researcher, he is one of the most prominent foes of the  tobacco industry in the country. His work has changed the national dialogue on smoking. While other researchers focused on the harmful effects of cigarettes on smokers, Glantz gave nonsmokers a stake in the debate. He broadened the conversation by raising social, environmental and political questions. As our story in this issue shows, he has succeeded by being relentless, abrasive and self-consciously eccentric.

Glantz says his experience as a campus crusader was "perfect training" for his later work on tobacco. "Stanford taught me how to frame key questions and conduct the kind of bulletproof research you need in order to survive scrutiny from hostile readers." He's not alone in recognizing how the University brings together people, ideas and energy in a way that creates a sense of possibility. There are similar stories of transformation elsewhere in this issue. History Professor David Kennedy was so entranced by Italy during his 1960 stint in the Overseas Studies Program that he dropped plans to study engineering. Bill Bamattre, now embroiled in bureaucracy as chief of the Los Angeles city fire department, learned about government as a political science major and got a look at "the practical side of life" while on a work/study assignment at the campus fire station.

Glantz captured our attention because he personifies a movement. The tide turned on cigarettes with the Surgeon General's report in 1964, but the anti-tobacco wave has only recently crested. In fact, since we started working on this article last spring, tobacco emerged as a regular front-page story. Bob Dole stumbled over campaign funds tied to the tobacco industry. President Clinton, meanwhile, scored political points pushing restrictions on tobacco advertising aimed at children.

I smoked my first cigarette when I was 12--and my last one when I was 14. When I was even younger, my mother, a 30-year-smoker, would send me to the market with a note asking the grocer to "please sell two packs of Winstons to my son Bobby." It wasn't long before my friends and I were writing similar notes in our best adult penmanship and dispatching one in our group--usually me, because I looked the youngest--to make the purchase.

By the time I was in high school, I was trying to persuade my mother to drop the habit. I used to anger her by hiding her cigarettes. I didn't know anything about environmental toxins or secondhand smoke; I just knew that smoking was bad for her. It wasn't until my junior year in college that she finally quit. Five years later, she was diagnosed with lung cancer--and 18 months after that, at the age of 54, she died.

I fault my mother for smoking long after she knew it was dangerous. But I blame the tobacco industry for manipulating the nicotine level in cigarettes to ensure that she and millions of others became addicted. That's the way the cigarette companies safeguard future profits in the United States, since their best customers here are dying off at a rate of 400,000 per year. My mother didn't understand this. If only Stan Glantz and his movement had come along a few decades earlier.

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.