Jen smoking an e-cig. She has since "quit."

The year was 1922 and prohibition in Greenpoint was already well underway. Led by the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the dry forces had succeeded in convincing legislators that alcohol fueled little more than wife beating, child abuse, crime and poor labor productivity.

With banning in the air, Peter J. McGuinness – the old-fashioned Irish ward boss of Greenpoint – decided to sponsor a City ordinance to prohibit the sale of cigarettes to women, sparking a citywide controversy in the process.

Worldwide righteousness

McGuinness was not the first to single out women as unsuitable candidates for smoking. Leaders and legislators around the world have occasionally tried their hand at banning women from lighting up.

Last year, Hamas in introduced a short-lived ban to prevent women from smoking the narghile in Gaza. ‘The police have decided to ban women from smoking narghile in open, public places because it is against our customs, traditions and social norms,’ said Ihab al-Hussein, a spokesman for the Hamas interior ministry.


Better known as the hubble-bubble or hookah, the narghile is a familiar site in the streets, cafes and open spaces of the region. Originally invented in India, the narghile was adopted by both the Turks and the Persians more than 500 years ago, spreading quickly throughout the Ottoman Empire.

By the middle of the 19th century the narghile was viewed as a fashion accessory among some women – the French romantic artist Delacroix painted a group of women sitting around a narghile in Algiers in 1834.

Nevertheless, at the start of the 20th century cigarettes were viewed as the props of ‘fallen women’ and prostitutes. In 1908 the New York City Board of Alderman unanimously passed an ordinance prohibiting public smoking by women.

The ordinance was quickly enforced, resulting in the arrest of Katie Mulcahey on January 22. Just two weeks later however, the ordinance was vetoed by the Mayor, George Brinton McClellan, Jr.

During World War I, the outrage felt against smoking women disappeared as the men left for war and the women began to work their jobs – donning coveralls and picking up wrenches for everything from the major shipyards to the local cruise port.

The gap in the market led tobacco companies to actively try and remove the taboo. Public relations supremo, Edward Bernays, was recruited and sought the help of psychoanalyst, A. A. Brill, who devised the idea that it was natural for women to smoke because of their oral fixation.

‘Today the emancipation of women has suppressed many of their feminine desires,’ wrote Bernays. ‘More women now do the same work as men do. Many women bear no children; those who do bear have fewer children. Feminine traits are masked. Cigarettes, which are equated with men, become torches of freedom.’

Thanks to the work of Bernays, the number of women who purchased cigarettes went up from 5% of cigarettes sold in 1923 to 33.3% by 1965. Thankfully, the tide is again turning, with both women and men realizing the error of their ways, even if this realization is forced upon them.

The day the smoking died

It’s been almost three years since the smoking ban was introduced to New York by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a former smoker himself.

‘Fundamentally, people just don’t want the guy next to them smoking,’ Bloomberg said at the time. ‘People will adjust very quickly and a lot of lives will be saved.’

As the number of places open to Greenpoint smokers become smaller, some are turning to products such as the e-cigarettes to continue to feed their addiction. E-cigarettes (or e-cigs) are electrical devices that simulate the act of smoking by producing an inhaled mist that replicates the appearance and sensation, as well as the flavor and nicotine content of tobacco smoke.

Though the cigarette’s manufacturers claim that the devices minimize the health risks associated with tobacco, health professionals disagree. E-cigarettes are already banned in Canada, Israel, Australia, Brazil, Mexico, and New Zealand, with a number of other countries restricting their use pending further research.

End of the e-cig?

Last year, the New York State Assembly voted overwhelmingly 125-0 to ban e-cigarettes. The decision followed pressure from the Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) group, which cited a report by the FDA describing e-cigs as posing ‘acute health risks’.

ASH had previously helped persuade New Jersey and Suffolk County, NY, to ban the use of e-cigarettes in no-smoking sections.

Join the Conversation


  1. I think the question of e-cigs will hinge on whether they pose risks to others who may be in the same confined space as the person using the thing. Also, is this the McGuinness of McGuinness Boulevard fame?

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