Tobacco and the State: A Brief History

My son who just turned 18 announced, “Hey, now I can buy cigarettes.” I’m sure he was just joking. But since he can, in fact, now legally do this in Massachusetts, it set me to thinking about the history of this problem of tobacco smoking. (My own experience is largely confined to imbibing a few pilfered cigarettes in the eighth grade, in later years the occasional congratulatory cigar or tobacco mixed with other material in exotic venues like Cairo. It’s never been my thing. It occurs to me that were I to take it up at my age, it probably wouldn’t do me in, but why would I want to contribute to the tobacco companies’ profits? I’d want to grow my own and leave them out of it.)

Where did this habit start? Seems that people in the western hemisphere — probably in the Tabasco district of Mexico — started to smoke the leaves of the tobacco plant about 2000 years ago. It had been growing there for some 4000 years, doing nobody any harm. The people enjoyed the taste and effects, and gradually the habit spread across the Caribbean to the Antilles, northwards up the Mississippi River Valley, and southwards towards Brazil.

Pipe-smoking is depicted on Guatemalan pottery dating as early as the seventh century. The Maya believed that the spirit of their sky-god Manitou was present in the ascending plume of smoke. In 1492, Christopher Columbus’ men having invaded the island of San Salvador were offered “certain dried leaves” by the native Arawaks. Not knowing what to do with them, they discarded these although a certain Rodrigo de Jerez soon adopted the smoking habit. He’s the first European known to have done so. Columbus scolded his crewmen for sharing the “savage” practice, but observed, perceptively, “it was not within their power to refrain.” By 1531, the Spanish colonists were cultivating tobacco in Santo Domingo, and in 1548 the Portuguese in Brazil were growing the plant for export.

During the second half of the sixteenth century, the whole world discovered the magical American herb: it pervaded France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Britain, Italy, Germany and the Ottoman Empire, while spreading among Englishmen in Virginia and other American colonies. The Portuguese brought it to India around 1570 and to Japan by the 1580s. It arrived in China and Korea soon thereafter. In short order millions were hooked. Queen Elizabeth I, at the urging of Sir Walter Raleigh, smoked in 1600.

Medical doctors, in particular, advocated the practice. The personal physician of King Philip II introduced tobacco to the Spanish court in 1559. Jean Nicot de Villemain, the French ambassador to Portugal, praised tobacco’s curative effects. (We honor this wise man with our word “nicotine.”) At the University of Seville, the physician Nicolò Monardes recommended it as a treatment for asthma, while the British doctor John Frampton astutely prescribed it for cancer in the 1570s. In 1609, an imperial prince in Japan described tobacco as “a medicine not listed” in classical Chinese pharmacological works, adding, “It is said that if a sick man tastes this smoke he is restored to glowing health” and many years are added to his life. The world was enamored of the “India weed,” some of its best scientific minds inclined for a time to encourage this love affair.

The general enthusiasm soon waned, however. Political authorities, beginning to notice what seemed its deleterious health effects, took measures to curb the new habit. In 1590 Pope Urban VII banned the use of tobacco “in the porchway of or inside a church, whether it be by chewing or smoking.” In 1603, the Japanese shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu banned tobacco. The next year James I, king of England and Scotland, issued his Counterblaste to Tobacco. He described smoking as a “custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse.”

In 1612, the Wan-li emperor in China banned tobacco cultivation and smoking; so did the emperor Jahangir in Mughal India five years later, noting that smoking causes “disturbance in most temperaments.” Under the sultan Murad IV (r. 1623-40), tobacco cultivation was banned in the Ottoman Empire; he ordered that smokers have their hands cut off. Massachusetts officials banned smoking in public in 1632, New Amsterdam followed suit in 1639. Two years later, the Russian czar Alexis imposed stiff penalties for smoking—death for a second offense.

But all these stern measures and admirable intentions, accompanied by a growing medical literature critical of the weed, collapsed before its seductive appeal and profit potential. In 1614, King Philip III of Spain established Seville as a center for the production of cigars. Philip (also the king of Portugal) was the most powerful monarch in Europe, nominal ruler of the rebellious Netherlands, and ally of tobacco foe James I. Enhanced commercial ties between England and Spain after the Treaty of London, signed in the same year (1604) as James’ Counterblast assured that leaf from the Spanish New World colonies would reach ever more British consumers. When the king banned the cultivation of the plant in England, and ended imports from Spain in 1621, English colonists in Virginia and Maryland monopolized supply through London merchants licensed and taxed by the Crown. New Amsterdam and Dutch colonies in the Caribbean similarly provisioned smokers in the Netherlands.

In France, in 1629 Cardinal Richelieu, always seeking new revenues for the crown, imposed a tobacco tax. Venice established a state monopoly over the production and sale of tobacco products thirty years later, and Louis XIV of France emulated this policy in 1674. Early modern states were becoming deeply invested in tobacco addiction, and many states abolished the bans they had imposed. In 1647 the Ottoman emperor lifted the ban on smoking, as did the new Russian czar Feodor in 1676. The newly-established Qing dynasty in China overturned the ban on tobacco enforced under the Ming.

Elsewhere bans were newly applied: the town council in Berne, Switzerland established special Chambres de Tabac to punish smokers in 1675, and tobacco smoking was banned in Korea in 1692. But tolerance or even encouragement were the broader trends. In 1710, Peter the Great of Russia advocated tobacco smoking as part of his broad campaign to promote European customs in his backward empire. In 1724, Pietro Francesco Orsini was elected Pope Benedict XIII. At age 75, he had argued that due to his age and frailty he ought not to receive the post, but he shouldered it with humility — and the same year took up smoking. (He lived six more years.)

So from 1492 to ca. 1590 (Pope Urban’s limited ban) there was a remarkable century of nascent tobacco addiction, encouraged by the finest minds in ruling classes everywhere. Then from 1590 to around 1640, there was a brief era of reconsideration. Rulers in China, India, Japan, Britain, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and the North American colonies determined that tobacco consumption was just a very bad idea. This period, at the height of the Scientific Revolution, might have ended with serious measures to end the problem. Instead it was followed most places by a total capitulation to the power of the purse by the political authorities exposed to, but inclined to ignore, evolving science and medical judgment. It wasn’t all King Philip III’s fault, of course but there isn’t anyone more responsible for what happened.

The Spanish crown’s promotion of cigar production, in the middle of that period of reconsideration, was tobacco’s “tipping point.” The state intervened decisively to enhance supply, ensure quality through inspections, and encourage demand in order to expand income from taxes. Soon France, emerging as Europe’s most powerful kingdom under the “Sun King” Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715), promoted tobacco for the health of the state. The state wasn’t ignorant of the human health facts. Indeed, in 1689 the Medical School of Paris produced the first scientific study concluding that smoking produces “ulcerations of the lungs,” “pains in the heart,” coughing, and asthma. It took 277 years for U.S. cigarette packs to bear the message: “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May be Hazardous to Your Health.” In the interim the state positively abetted tobacco commerce, as it still does today in various ways.

In 1881, James Bonsack, a fine young student in Virginia, patented a cigarette-rolling machine than could produce 12,000 cigarettes an hour. Before this, a cigarette workshop employee was averaging some 240 per hour. This product of American ingenuity revolutionized the tobacco market, and sharply cut smoking costs. Cigarettes were issued to U.S. soldiers in World War I and World II, and photos of them smoking and sharing helped glamorize the habit. Many came home from war addicted, thanks to patriotic donations from the cigarette companies distributed through the U.S. Army.

The state promoted tobacco addiction in other ways. Up to 1994 the Department of Agriculture funded tobacco export programs; so did the Department of Commerce and the Office of U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) to 1998. The latter continue to campaign for greater U.S. tobacco exports in the name of fighting “foreign discriminatory trade practices.” With official blessing, U.S. leaf tobacco exports to Chinese cigarette manufacturers leapt from 195 tons in 2005 to 9,622 tons in 2006. China is the world’s largest cigarette producer and market, and about 320 million Chinese (including many children) smoke. Last December, Altria (formerly Philip Morris) and the state-owned China National Tobacco Corporation (which has about one-third of global market share) announced a joint venture to produce Marlboro cigarettes in China.

On the one hand, the Chinese state has decided (in September) to start printing skulls on cigarette packs to alert consumers to the danger as of January 2009. On the other, it’s working with American capitalists assisted by U.S. Commerce Department officials to addict a new generation to a deadly habit. The Wan-li emperor would be appalled. So would Mao Zedong, perhaps. Not because he objected to smoking (he was a chain smoker himself, and during the Yenan period in the 1930s and early 1940s cultivated his own tobacco patch), but because of the clear contradiction here between theory and practice, and between the interests of the (American and Chinese) capitalists who profit from death and those of the 1.2 million Chinese who, according to the who World Health Organization, die every year from smoking. He would likely argue that the future of tobacco be decided by public debate (“line struggle”), while those addicted be allowed to purchase what they need and also offered help from the state to quit. But I don’t think he’d be pleased that his successors, in what has become a thoroughly capitalist China, collude with foreign capitalists to addict tens of millions more of Chinese youth in an era when science has clearly concluded that smoking kills.

The multinational tobacco corporations occupy a respected niche in the American system, contribute to political campaign coffers, and expand their global reach even while affecting an air of social responsibility by outwardly (as a result of legal verdicts) discouraging the consumption of their product. In doing so, of course, they advertise it, lending it to the young audience in particular added appeal of danger and self-destructive rebellion. Sales to the U.S. youth market grew from $ 737 million in 1997 to 1.2 billion in 2002. Some attribute this to R. J. Reynolds Nabisco’s “Joe Camel” ad campaign; in 1991 more six year olds in the U.S. recognized the cuddly smoker character than recognized Mickey Mouse. They jump on the “globalization” bandwagon, working with the International Monetary Fund to move into markets once dominated by state-owned tobacco companies (as in Turkey in 2002, or Morocco in 2003).

Philip III and Richelieu wedded the state to tobacco profits. The “People’s Republic” of China has embraced Joe Camel, the lovable beast incorporated into the avant garde art of Zhou Tiehai. “It was not within their power to refrain,” wrote Columbus, of the first European tobacco addicts. Five centuries later, it’s not in the power of the tobacco companies and their state allies to stop seducing and addicting our youth. They have to do what they do; it’s the logic of the system.

“I can buy cigarettes now.” From the young adult’s point of view, the smoke might smell like freedom, maturity, sophistication — even a desultory tempting of death that lends gravity to awkward years when affectations of reckless suaveness can somewhat alleviate feelings of uncool insecurity. But if the smoke of Manitou was once cool, the product of ancient cultures who held it sacred, it has since the rosy dawn of the capitalist era stopped rising up to heaven and has rather been spiriting its addicts down to hell.

Those “dried leaves” that greeted Columbus soon embodied the spirit of profit, and lost all religious significance. The peace pipe of Native Americans, brought out on special occasions, became the soldier’s cigarette, a defense against battle fatigue and stress. The unifying herbal experience of the Cree or Ojibway sweat lodge became the stuff of fierce international trade competition.

It is in fact a “savage practice,” but not in the sense that Columbus used the phrase. It is merely the practice of profit, high on itself and unable to quit.

Gary Leupp is a Professor of History at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Gary.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. jaime said on November 16th, 2007 at 9:12am #

    Interesting article.

  2. HR said on November 17th, 2007 at 11:10am #

    And the latest perversion of tobacco is by “congressional” Democrats, who tried to raise the tobacco tax to pay for health care for children, a case of smoke-and-mirrors if ever there was one — make poor and working-poor people pay for it. It’s the only time I have found myself in agreement with the criminal Bush cabal. The Dems will eventually pull this off, since they lack the courage to cut military spending significantly and redirect its current funding to peaceful, beneficial uses, or to raise the income tax on wealthy folks by reimplementing pre-Reagan tax brackets and closing ALL loopholes for the rich. Over the last 40 years, smoking is about the only issue that USans have been able to get excited about … other than the racist immigration “issue”. This is a truly sick country.

  3. Lloyd Rowsey said on December 20th, 2007 at 11:33am #

    Thank you for this example par excellance of summarized history, Gary Leupp. An example par excellance of a complicated history of tobacco and transported blacks is: “Tobacco and Slaves – The Development of Southern Cultures in the Cheasapeake, 1680-1800 (UNC Press, 1986).”