Tobacco users have been ostracized at different times and in different contexts since 1492, when the explorer Christopher Columbus and his sailors became the first Europeans to encounter what quickly became known as "the devil's weed."
When Columbus and his crew landed in the New World, the indigenous Arawak Indians offered them gifts of "some dried leaves which are in high value among them" (Columbus 1990). To Columbus's disgust, some of his sailors were soon emulating the Indians and "drinking smoke" themselves. One of them, Rodrigo de Jerez of Ayamonte, Spain, reportedly became the subject of the first legal action against a smoker. De Jerez took a supply of tobacco from present-day Cuba back to his home village. It is said that when he lit up for the first time in public, the townspeople—alarmed by the smoke issuing from his mouth and nose—assumed he had been possessed by the devil and turned him over to the authorities.
A broad fraternity of kings, emperors, popes, and potentates condemned tobacco as a heathen import in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Ecclesiastic authorities, both Christian and Islamic, associated the plant with barbarism and idolatry. Smokers faced excommunication, imprisonment, and even death. An imperial edict issued in China in 1638 made the use or distribution of tobacco a crime punishable by decapitation. In Russia, smokers were flogged, the nostrils of repeat offenders were slit, and persistent violators were exiled to Siberia. Sultan Murad IV of Turkey had smokers executed as infidels.
Tobacco had defenders, of course. Among them was Sir Walter Raleigh (1554–1618), who popularized the habit among the upper classes in England. According to legend, when one of Sir Walter's servants saw him smoking for the first time, he assumed he was burning up from within and doused him with a bucket of water. The story illustrates how strange, even alarming, the act of smoking must have seemed to Europeans of the sixteenth century.
By the eighteenth century tobacco was commonplace but it was still far from being universally accepted. Religious leaders denounced the plant as a "dry inebriant"—a substance that could induce drunkenness even through it was smoked rather than swallowed. The link between tobacco, alcohol, and sin became even more pronounced after the emergence of a temperance movement in England and the United States in the nineteenth century. Temperance advocates warned that "Smoking leads to drinking and drinking leads to the devil" (Lawrence 1885).
During the Victorian era (bracketed by the reign of Queen Victoria in England from 1837 to 1901), tobacco users began to provoke censure on the grounds of aesthetics as well as morality. Changing standards of hygiene led to complaints about the smell and detritus generated by pipes and cigars. Chewing tobacco, once the most popular form of tobacco in the United States, rapidly fell out of favor, its exit hastened by anti-spitting ordinances. Cigarettes gained social acceptance partly because they were viewed as less offensive in close quarters than other kinds of tobacco.
Cigarettes penetrated into all social classes in southern and eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century, but they were disdained as "beggar's smokes" in western Europe and the United States. Britain's Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) took up the habit in the 1880s, giving it an aura of glamour in England. In the United States, however, the cigarette was a lowly, disreputable product. Respectable men smoked pipes or cigars; respectable women did not smoke at all. Most Americans would have agreed with Rev. William "Billy" Sunday, the popular evangelist, who once said, "There is nothing manly about smoking cigarettes. For God's sake, if you must smoke, get a pipe" (Sunday 1915).
After World War I, cigarette smoking expanded socially, across gender and class lines, and spatially, into public spaces. It began to seem as if nearly everyone smoked. In fact, cigarettes were still a habit of the minority in most countries. In the United States, for example, only 42 percent of adult Americans smoked cigarettes in 1965, at the height of the Cigarette Age (roughly 1930 to 1970). Although a sizable proportion, this was still a minority. Nonetheless, cigarettes were embedded in the cultural landscape, accepted as emblems of modernity and sophistication even by nonsmokers.
In the late twentieth century, people who did not smoke became increasingly less tolerant of those who did. A new generation of antitobacco activists used popular media to convey the message that smokers damaged not only their own health but also that of others. The act of smoking—once an expression of sociability—was redefined as antisocial behavior. Perhaps more tellingly it was also identified with yellow teeth and foul-smelling breath. "You can't talk to a 15-year-old about getting lung cancer in his or her 50s, but they get it when you say kissing a smoker is like kissing an ashtray," commented Joseph Califano, president of the national Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (Bowman).
Smokers' rights groups have attempted to counter these trends by associating the freedom to smoke with basic human liberties. They use epithets such as "nanny staters" and "health Nazis" to depict anti-smoking activists as scolds and busybodies. In this view, tobacco is a marker that separates the tolerant from the puritanical.
▌ CASSANDRA TATE
Bowman, Lee. "40 Years Ago, Government Linked Smoking to Cancer." Seattle Post-Intelligencer (10 January 2004): A2.
Columbus, Christopher. Journal of the First Voyage of Christopher Columbus. B. W. Ife, edited and translated by Westminster, England: Aris and Phillips, Ltd., 1990.
Lander, Meta [Margaret Woods Lawrence]. The Tobacco Problem. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1886.
Sunday, William. Omaha Sermons of Billy Sunday, September–October, 1915. Omaha, Nebr.: Omaha Daily News, 1915.
Tate, Cassandra. Cigarette Wars: The Triumph of "the Little White Slaver." New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
heathen any person or group not worshiping the God of the Old Testament, that is, anyone not a Jew, Christian, or Muslim. May also be applied to any profane, crude, or irreligious person regardless of ethnicity.