Nicotine Fit

updated 10/10/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/10/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

LET'S FACE IT: AMERICA'S GREAT blues musicians cultivated so many vices that smoking for them could have been considered a health kick. Take Robert Johnson, who knocked around the South in the 1930s playing juke joints and recording a handful of songs—including "Love in Vain"—that secured his reputation. Legend has it that he sold his soul to the devil. Some historians believe that he was murdered in 1938, at age 27, after drinking strychnine-laced whiskey served by a lady friend's husband. To paraphrase an old blues song, "If it wasn't for hard luck, the man wouldn't have had no luck at all."

None of this bothered the U.S. Postal Service when it decided to honor Johnson in its Legends of American Music stamp series. But when the authorities saw the initial sketch for the stamp, they asked artist Julian Allen to delete the cigarette dangling from Johnson's lip. Smoking, the feds said, sent the wrong message.

Allen thought it "a little bit petty" of the government to clean up the sketch but followed orders. So on Sept. 15, two days before the stamp was released, the National Smokers Alliance, which claims more than 1 million members, issued a statement protesting the sanitizing of Johnson's image.

"The issue here is, 'What is the job of the Post Office?' " fumes Thomas Humber, president of the NSA. "Their job should not be to corrupt history, no matter what anyone thinks about smoking."

The NSA is urging the Postal Service to reissue the stamp with the cigarette, but that's not likely. "It's been an ongoing practice not to include cigarettes," says Monica Hand, the Postal Service's spokeswoman, who adds that stamps depicting smokers Edward R. Murrow and George Meany didn't show them puffing away. Humber says he thinks that Johnson "would have laughed" if he could have seen what was going on—but adds that he himself is not amused. "Life is magnificent in its diversity," he said. "Why can't we just let it be?"

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