Scanning Around With Gene: Back When Smoking Was Rewarded

One of my first jobs was working at a small local pharmacy. During the week after school I’d deliver prescriptions, and on Saturdays I’d man the front counter and wait on customers. And though it was probably illegal for a 16-year-old to sell cigarettes, such rules were very loosely enforced. So I regularly dispensed packs of smokes along with the drugs and other merchandise we sold.

Several brands of cigarettes, including Raleigh and Bel Air, came with a coupon attached to each pack which, when enough were accumulated, could be redeemed for merchandise. I remember one older customer in particular who smoked Bel Airs and came in just about every Saturday to stock up. “Gotta save up those coupons,” he’d say, as if the mail-order rewards somehow justified the addiction. Click on any image for a larger version.

Of course I don’t suppose anyone actually smoked more just to get merchandise, but it was a little extra incentive to be brand loyal–a time-honored marketing strategy used by any number of companies. I myself saved up bubble-gum wrappers and cereal box tops for the prospect of some cheap trinket.

At one point Raleigh was the fourth best-selling cigarette brand, so the incentive apparently worked. As the company explained it, they spent less on advertising and passed those savings on to customers in the form of free merchandise.

The Raleigh and Bel Air catalog had a large variety of merchandise. Just to give you an idea of what these items actually cost, if you smoked two packs a day it would take you three-and-a-half years to save up for a new Corning Ware percolator, or almost five years for a set of new golf clubs.

If you bought your cigarettes by the carton, you received an extra four coupons, so it paid to buy in bulk.

I suspect that, like trading stamps and other redeemable gimmicks, many people had a drawer full of Raleigh coupons that were never traded in for anything: a silent testimony to a lifetime of smoking.

My parents both smoked Camels, which were the most popular brand back then (they may still be), so we got nothing in return for their loyalty except the smell of cigarette smoke, the tinge of nicotine on the walls, and whatever health problems came from growing up with second-hand smoke.

If you preferred, you could exchange Raleigh coupons for cash at the rate of 3/4 cents per coupon. At two packs a day for a year, you’d be looking at a whopping $5.47 rebate.

I think it’s interesting that this Raleigh catalog features a small girl in many of the pictures, and quite a few of the incentives were targeted at the younger set. I imagine many adults passed their coupons along to other family members for redemption.

We know a lot more now about the “rewards” of smoking, and the prospect of a new lawn mower in exchange for several years of smoking seems wildly inappropriate by today’s standards.

But back in 1964, cigarettes were cheap and abundant and tobacco companies were fiercely competitive. I suppose if you were going to smoke anyway, why not get a nice croquet set for your troubles?

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Posted on: May 13, 2011

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on

5 Comments on Scanning Around With Gene: Back When Smoking Was Rewarded

  1. I remember these catalogs. My folks smoked Pall Malls and my Dad loved Camels, too. Everyone’s parents and older siblings smoked back in the day, you couldn’t get away from the clouds of smoke. I think our neighbors had these books, it’s a very strange concept now, to pay to trade away your health to get these inexpensive items for ‘free’… Imagine trying something similar today! It would never fly… Which is a good thing.

  2. Hello Gene,

    Enjoy your visual trips in the past. I for one, was the counter – and could tell you how many more coffin nails the folks needed to consume before we could get a new toaster (etc). The folks around the corner (Mel at the Tip Top) would regularly sell me a carton when Mom didn’t want to make the trip (at 9 years). But these were different times.

    They eventually dropp

  3. We had that hamper, and quite a few other things in these pictures look very familiar. The truth is, I remember my dad making me pull all of those coupons off of the back of the cigarette packs and then he made me count them all out and bundle them in packs. I don’t recall ever getting anything for my troubles. Same with my mom and those green stamps. I had to lick reams of those things and keep track of the books.

    Back then it seemed like every place/product had a premium for one thing or another. We got a free toaster for opening a bank account. Glassware came in a box of washing soap. (Duz?) Prizes came in cereal boxes. I used to dump them all out and then pour the cereal back in after I got the toy. Certain gas stations gave out stuff. We used to save box tops too. I can’t remember all the things we could save for. Violet

  4. And how many people, just like my wonderful father, smoked themselves into an early grave? How many of us suffered ear infections (and other health problems) because our parents just did not know that smoking and second hand smoke could cause such harm?

    I remember some of these ads and if my father had only known how bad smoking was for him, and us, I really believe he would have quit a lot sooner than he did.

    So sad.

  5. “And though it was probably illegal for a 16-year-old to sell cigarettes, such rules were very loosely enforced.”

    I remember as a kid walking by myself — at night — to buy cigarettes from the convenience store for my mother. The entire “enforcement” of the law was my telling the clerk that they were for my mother instead of for me. The “good ol’ days”…

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