“Smoking has gone out. To be sure, it is a shocking thing, blowing smoke out of our mouths into other people’s mouths, eyes and noses, and having the same thing done to us.”
—Samuel Johnson, 1773.
The great man of English letters got it wrong. Johnson made that observation after studying the habits of the English upper classes. And in the late 18th century their preference for snuff-taking appeared certain to spread throughout society and supplant pipe smoking. But at about the same time, cigars or so-called tobacco sticks imported from Spain’s American colonies revived the dormant smoking habit throughout Europe. In fact, cigars were to cast their pungent aroma across the continent’s salons and coffeehouses for another century—until cigarettes replaced them as the most common form of tobacco use. Now, however, Johnson’s prediction appears to be timely. Indeed, another celebrated Johnson recently underlined tobacco’s current unfashionableness. Stung by criticism that he was setting a bad example for his youthful fans, Don Johnson, the star of NBC-TV’S hit series Miami Vice, announced last year that he would no longer smoke cigarettes on camera.
Glowing: Certainly, tobacco use has had a long, colorful and controversial history since European explorers first witnessed its use in November, 1492. At that time two Spaniards who were travelling with Christopher Columbus noticed that natives of Cuba were igniting dry tobacco leaves from glowing coals— and then, to the puzzled travellers’ amazement, inhaling the smoke. During the next 60 years residents of Spanish and Portuguese seaports had the same reaction to returning sailors who brought tobacco plants, seeds and the smoking habit from the New World. Still, early warnings that smoking was a health hazard proved ineffective. Indeed, Murad IV, a bloodthirsty sultan who ruled the Ottoman Empire during the 17th century, sporadically imposed the death penalty in an unsuccessful attempt to stamp out smoking.
But by the 18th century the habit had
spread around the world. And in 1880, Virginia inventor James Bonsack developed a machine that made possible the current mass production of the most widely used tobacco product in the world, the cigarette. In Canada alone, seven million smokers consume an average of 27 cigarettes daily.
They do so despite widely publicized
studies that have linked smoking to such diseases as cancer, heart disorders and emphysema. But smokers have ignored warnings about the risks of smoking almost since its introduction to Europe. In 1604 the British monarch James I condemned the practice in a polemic titled, “A counterblaste to tobacco.” The nonsmoking king scoffed at his countrymen who ascribed healing properties—including relieving hangovers and curing syphilis—to tobacco. Instead, declared the king, smoking was “a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain and dangerous to the lungs.” The result: James’s arguments heightened interest in smoking throughout Britain.
Fighting: Kingly polemics aside, Toronto epidemiologist Roberta Ferrence and other experts say that warfare has played a key role in spreading the smoking habit. For one thing, Ferrence noted that British soldiers re-
turning from the Crimean War in 1856 helped popularize home consumption of tobacco rolled in paper tubes rather than as cigars or in pipes. They had picked up that form of smoking— which had reached Europe from Brazil about 12 years earlier—from French troops fighting in the Crimean Peninsula. One advantage of the hand-rolled
cigarettes: they were much less expensive than ready-made cigars.
Glamorous: After the First World War, according to Ferrence, returning war veterans and members of the U.S and Canadian upper classes made it fashionable to smoke factory-produced cigarettes. And the sight of glamorous stars like Bette Davis smoking their way through 1930s and 1940s movies also helped spread the cigarette habit. But according to Ferrence, high-status citizens such as doctors reversed that trend when some began butting out during the 1950s—a turning away from cigarettes that she said she believes will also spread through society. Ferrence said she doubts that Canada will ever be completely smoke-free. Still, growing public disapproval of smoking strongly indicates that Samuel Johnson might have been a prophet who was simply ahead of his time.
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