When I Read About the Evils of Smoking, I Gave Up Reading

Groucho Marx? Henry G. Strauss? Phil Harris? Joe E. Lewis? Anonymous?

Topic: Smoking? Drinking?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a family of jokes about smoking, drinking, and reading. The quips certainly do not reflect the actions of role models, but they are funny:

  • When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading.
  • He read so much about the ill effects of smoking that he gave up – reading!
  • When I read about the bad effects of drinking I decided to give up reading.
  • A man was so horrified by what he read about effects of smoking that he gave up reading.

When did this family originate? Were the initial gags about smoking or drinking?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in 1950. The topic of the quip was smoking, and the words were ascribed to a well-known comedy superstar:[ref] 1950 July 07, The Hartford Courant, Informing You by M. Oakley Stafford, Page 24, Column 1, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest) [/ref]

Groucho Marx says he became disturbed over the effects of smoking, after reading an article on the subject, he gave up reading. (That’s right, not smoking. That’s Groucho.)

In 1954 a version of the joke was told in the Parliament of the United Kingdom where it was credited to Henry G. Strauss who later became Lord Conesford. Strictly speaking Strauss assigned the gag to an anonymous American:[ref] 1954 March 10, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, Commons, “CITY OF LONDON (VARIOUS POWERS) BILL (By Order)”, Speaking: Sir Robert Cary (Manchester, Withington), HC Deb 10, volume 524, cc2306-61. (Accessed hansard.millbanksystems.com on 2012 September 19) link [/ref]

As I listened to the hon. Baronets I could not help thinking of a story told to the House two weeks ago by my hon. and learned Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. H. Strauss) about the American who was so horrified at what he had read in the newspapers about smoking that he gave up reading.

The comedic remark credited to Strauss was reported in North American papers, e.g., the Lethbridge Herald or Lethbridge, Alberta,[ref] 1954 March 29, Lethbridge Herald, Sayings: [H. G. Strauss, Parliamentary Secretary, UK Board of Trade], Quote Page 4, Column 4, Lethbridge, Alberta. (NewspaperArchive) [/ref] and the Big Spring Daily Herald of Big Spring, Texas.[ref] 1954 May 3, Big Spring Daily Herald, Around The Rim – The Herald Staff: At Least Sand Storms Give Us A Chance To See The Country, Quote Page 6, Column 6, Big Spring, Texas. (NewsArchive) [/ref]

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In August 1955 a variant of the jibe based on drinking instead of smoking appeared. A performer named Phil Harris who was a singer, actor, and comedian was credited with the line by a newspaper columnist:[ref] 1955 August 27, Aberdeen Daily News, Hal Boyle: Poor Man’s Philosopher, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Aberdeen, South Dakota. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

Comic Phil Harris says he’d read so much about the bad effect of drinking that he’s considering giving up reading.

In September 1955 the quip moved into the domain of illustrated humor. A single panel cartoon depicted two women talking while a man drank from a glass, and the caption said:[ref] 1955 September 9, Arkansas State Press, (Tan Topics: Single-panel comic depicts two women talking and a man drinking from a glass: Caption), Quote Page 2, Column 1, (Continental Features), Little Rock, Arkansas. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

“He read so much about the ill effects of drink that he gave up – reading!”

In 1957 a Massachusetts newspaper printed the following version:[ref] 1957 June 6, Springfield Union, On the Firing Line by D. N. T., Quote Page 10, Column 3, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

A copydesk man passes along the story about the heavy cigaret smoker who got so worried about the reports connecting smoking with cancer, heart disease and whatnot that he gave up reading.

In 1958 the prominent comedian Joe E. Lewis delivered a version:[ref] 1958 September 30, Omaha World Herald, Some Advice on Gambling Offered by Joe E. Lewis by Phyllis Battelle, Quote Page 6, Column 7, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

Joe E. Lewis, who has lived dangerously and fully, has learned to cope with his vicissitudes. With keen insight and without hesitation, he solves each little problem as it arises.
“Like I’ve been reading about how dangerous smoking is,” he sums up, “So naturally I gave up reading.”

A more elaborate multi-part instance of the jape has appeared on websites. Here is a slightly modified version:

I read smoking was bad, I quit smoking.
I read drinking was bad, I quit drinking.
I read coition was bad, I quit reading.

In conclusion, based on current knowledge Groucho Marx crafted the first instance in this family of humorous remarks by 1950, and his topic was smoking. By 1955 a variant about drinking was in circulation. Earlier instances may be discovered in the future.

(Thanks to Fred Shapiro and Barry Popik for pioneering work tracing elements in this family of sayings. Thanks to Jonathan Sideris whose inquiry tweet on this topic gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

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