Cigarette Prohibition in Washington, 1893-1911

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 3/02/2003
  • Essay 5339

The first Washington state elected official to make national history in a crusade against cigarettes was not Attorney General Christine Gregoire, who brokered a settlement between the tobacco industry and 46 states in 1998, or Metropolitan King County Council Member Greg Nickels, who led a campaign to restrict cigarette advertising that same year. The distinction belongs to C. T. Roscoe, an Everett attorney and Republican state legislator who sponsored the law that made Washington the first state to ban the sale of cigarettes to anyone, adults as well as minors. The year was 1893.

Hammering Down Coffin Nails

The law was struck down in the federal courts the following July, but Progressive reformers in Washington State continued to agitate against “coffin nails” (a.k.a.. little white slavers, dope sticks, devil's toothpicks, Satan sticks, coffin pills, little white devils, etc.). The State Legislature passed another cigarette prohibition law in 1907. It enacted an even more sweeping law two years later, banning the possession as well as the sale and manufacture of cigarettes and cigarette paper. Cigarettes remained articles of contraband in Washington until 1911, when the legislators conceded defeat -- at least temporarily -- in the battle to make the state a smoke-free zone.

As a member of the 1893 legislature, Roscoe introduced House Bill 236, “An Act making it unlawful for any person or persons to buy, sell, or give away, or manufacture, cigarettes or cigarette paper, and providing the punishment for the violation thereof” (a fine of up to $500 or six months in jail or both). The bill sailed through the House and went on to the Senate, where it was amended to ban even the possession of cigarettes. The Senate approved the tougher measure with only one dissenting vote, but Roscoe’s colleagues in the House balked. A conference committee recommended that the original language be restored, the legislature agreed, and Republican Governor John Hart McGraw signed the bill into law on March 7, 1893.

Washington thus became the first of a total of 15 states to prohibit the sale and manufacture (and in some cases the possession, advertising, and/or use) of cigarettes in the late 1800s and early 1900s. By 1925, all but 11 states had at least considered such legislation. Many municipalities imposed their own restrictions, from making it illegal for women to smoke cigarettes in public to outlawing smoking in the vicinity of school buildings. Congress rejected several petitions to prohibit cigarettes at the federal level, but in 1892 the Senate Committee on Epidemic Diseases agreed that they were a public health hazard and urged the petitioners to seek remedies from the states.

The laws were justified on the grounds of both health and morality. Cigarette smoking was widely regarded as an addictive, dangerous new habit, particularly seductive to the young, and likely to lead to the use of alcohol and other drugs. In seeking to legislate “coffin nails” out of existence, Progressive Era reformers demonstrated their underlying faith in the power of government to protect the public by regulating private behavior.

No Smoke, No Fire

The nation’s first cigarette prohibition law attracted relatively little attention when it went into effect on May 7, 1893. Local newspapers were preoccupied with the nationwide economic crisis that had begun earlier that year and with such issues whether “the Evergreen State” was a suitable sobriquet for the new state. A bill in the Minnesota legislature to prohibit the wearing of hoop skirts excited more local editorial comment than the anti-cigarette law.

In July, the United States Circuit Court (in a case tried in Seattle) declared the law unconstitutional on the grounds that it improperly restrained interstate trade. This was an issue that would be debated repeatedly during the next two decades as other states enacted similar legislation and the industry fought back through the courts.

The New York Times endorsed the decision in the Washington case, commenting, "The smoking of cigarettes may be objectionable, as are many other foolish practices, and it may be more injurious than other modes of smoking tobacco, but it is an evil which cannot be remedied by law." The editorial struck at the heart of the first crusade against cigarettes. The question was not whether cigarettes were harmful -- the prevailing opinion was that they were -- but whether adults should be legally prevented from smoking them. The Times concluded that cigarettes were not “a legitimate subject for legislative action.”

Close But No Cigar

Washington lawmakers remained ambivalent. They quietly repealed the ban in the 1895 session of the legislature and rejected cigarette prohibition bills during two subsequent sessions. The prospects for cigarette prohibition appeared to have recovered by 1903, when State Senator Orville A. Tucker of Seattle sponsored a new ban. Tucker, a Republican and at various times a lawyer, journalist, and Northern Pacific Railroad clerk, was a seasoned legislator who had served in the House before being elected to the Senate (representing King County’s 32nd District) in 1902.

Tucker made it clear that he did not object to other forms of tobacco. Like President Bill Clinton, a vigorous campaigner against cigarettes in the 1990s, Tucker was a cigar smoker. Indeed, while meeting with some colleagues in an Olympia hotel room shortly before introducing his anti-cigarette bill, Tucker ignited a window curtain while trying to light his cigar. (“Senator Tucker had been too enthusiastic” while “wrestling with a refractory match,” the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported, noting that the fire took only minutes to extinguish but left the room a wreck.)

Farewell, Mr. Cigarette

The 1903 legislature was almost unsurpassed in its enthusiasm for reform, passing laws to curb gambling and alcohol and requiring businesses to close on Sunday. It also made it a misdemeanor for a woman to appear in public in male attire, “unless she be on her way to or from a masquerade party.” Tucker’s anti-cigarette bill had strong support, including an endorsement from the Seattle Mail and Herald, which argued “There is no question about the advisability of legislation against so indecent and so dangerous a practice as that of using cigarettes.” Nonetheless, the bill was defeated.

Cigarettes remained legitimate articles of commerce in Washington until 1907, when another reform-minded legislature made it illegal to “manufacture, sell, exchange, barter, dispose of or give away, or keep for sale, any cigarettes, cigarette paper or cigarette wrappers, or any paper made or prepared for the purpose of being filled with tobacco for smoking.” To fend off the constitutional challenges that had undercut the 1893 law, the new legislation exempted jobbers involved in interstate commerce.

On September 1, when the law took effect, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer published a farewell interview with “Mr. Cigarette” (further identified as “the attenuated friend of the undertaker”). Tongue in cheek, the paper quoted the cigarette as saying, “I have learned to love the Puget Sound country. I have many close friends in Seattle. It is sad to part with them. I have become attached to scores of them, and it is a consolation to me to know that they will miss me.”

Two years later, the legislature tightened the law to prohibit the possession as well as the manufacture and sale of cigarettes and cigarette paper. The new law was part of a revised criminal code that, among other things, banned tipping, required that saloons be open to public view, and stipulated that Superior Court judges wear black silk robes. Newspaper reports suggest that enforcement was haphazard and tended to be concentrated in rural areas. Police in small towns around the state arrested about 60 smokers during the first 30 days that the law was in effect, but only six more during the next three months, and none thereafter. No arrests were reported in Seattle, which was hosting the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition at the time.

Union Leader Smoked Out

The most celebrated violator was William D. "Big Bill" Haywood, the legendary labor organizer who ran afoul of the law several times while on a speaking tour in Western Washington. On the morning of June 16, in the Mint saloon in Ellensburg, Haywood rolled a cigarette, put it between his lips, and was promptly arrested. He attempted, to no avail, to get rid of the incriminating evidence by dropping it on the floor. After posting $15 bail, Haywood went on to North Yakima, went immediately to the Hotel Yakima bar, took out his “makin’s,” and was arrested once again.

The editor of the Yakima Herald posted his $15 bail, in time for Haywood to give a talk that evening on the merits of socialism. Nine days later, Haywood was caught with cigarette contraband in Davenport. In Ellensburg, the charges were dropped after the Kittitas County prosecutor said he would not prosecute any smokers because he believed the law was unconstitutional, but Haywood was convicted in North Yakima and Davenport; he was fined a total of $9.50 plus court costs of $5.95.

Years later, in his autobiography, Haywood claimed "My persecution and the publicity that followed it caused the repeal of the anti-cigarette law." In fact, opposition to the law had been building for some time among legislators who regarded it as unenforceable. "When you pass a law you know is going to be violated, as the gentlemen opposing (repeal) admit the present law is violated, you are merely bringing all law into contempt," said Senator Josiah Collins, a member of the judiciary committee, who led a successful effort to legalize cigarettes at the next session of the legislature, in 1911.

And with that, Washington State withdrew from what would prove to be round one of a lengthy -- and possibly endless -- battle against the cigarette.


Cassandra Tate, Cigarette Wars: The Triumph of ‘The Little White Slaver’ (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), and “The American Anti-Cigarette Movement, 1880-1930” (Ph.D. diss., University of Washington, Seattle, 1995).

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