The Violent Past of a Wicked Weed

By John Carey


A Cultural History of How

an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization

By Iain Gately

Grove Press -- 403pp -- $25

Today's smokers, shivering in the winter cold outside their smoke-free office buildings, should be glad they aren't living in Constantinople in the early 1600s. That's when Murad IV, ruler of the vast Ottoman Empire, had an even nastier habit than tobacco. He roamed the city's streets in disguise, "feigning an urgent craving for a smoke, then beheading any good Samaritans who offered relief," reports Iain Gately in his entertaining Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization. In just 14 years, Murad personally killed or had put to death more than 25,000 suspected smokers.

Who would have guessed that the antismoking movement had such a long and colorful past? Murad's methods might have been extreme, but he wasn't the only fervent foe of the pervasive weed. England's King James I wrote that smokers were no better than devil-worshiping savages "guilty of sinful and shameful lust," and he tried to tax tobacco into oblivion. New Year's Day in 1848 kicked off the "greatest no-smoking protest of the nineteenth century" in Milan. Citizens knocked cigars from the mouths of smokers--even the Austrian soldiers who were occupying Italy. "It was the first blow struck for a free and united Italy," the author writes. And as cigarettes became popular, The New York Times warned in 1883 that "if this pernicious practice obtains among adult Americans the ruin of the Republic is at hand."

As Gately argues in this irreverent and quirky, if occasionally exaggerated, book, tobacco not only survived every attempt to stamp it out, it changed the course of history. Gately claims--not altogether persuasively--that the American colonies were founded and fueled by tobacco. It was John Rolfe's 1612 planting of tobacco that saved the foundering Jamestown colony and created a cash crop that dramatically boosted English interest in the New World. That act "was ultimately responsible for the pre-eminence of English culture, language and laws in the most powerfulnation in history," Gately writes.

Aptly enough, the original Native American name for what is now Greenwich Village was Sapponckanican: the land where tobacco grows. The crop became North America's main export and helped create a demand for slaves. And by being both the subject of British taxes and the collateral for a loan Benjamin Franklin got from France, "tobacco supplied both the cause and the victory in the U.S. War of Independence," Gately argues.

Gately describes how cultivation originated in the Peruvian and Ecuadorian Andes between 5000 and 3000 BC. Shamans smoked, chewed, ate, or drank it to achieve near-death trances. Long before the white man, tobacco spread throughout the New World, showing up in creation myths and social rituals. Even North American Plains Indians, who grew no other crops, planted tobacco. When he arrived, Columbus was presented with gifts of the weed. He threw the stuff overboard, but others were quickly hooked. "Tobacco spread like an epidemiccrossing borders and cultures at will," Gately writes. "It respected neither rank nor creed, infecting nomads, Buddhists and Christian bishops alike."

The book is filled with fascinating tidbits. The Dutch so embraced the new plant's purported medicinal qualities that "infant pipe smokers were counted as one of the curiosities of seventeenth century Amsterdam." Napoleon used a kilo of snuff a week--equivalent to a hundred-cigarette-a-day habit. Gately is silent on whether this hurt or helped his military strategy, though he does quip that Napoleon's British foes fielded a cavalry "world renowned for its bravery, beauty, and senselessness."

In the U.S., the mighty tobacco industry grew from the vision of a man named Buck Duke, whose factories employed the first mass-production machines. By the late 1880s, Duke was making 2 million cigarettes a day and spending an astonishing $800,000 per year on advertising. His American Tobacco Co. became powerful enough to persuade Congress not to include nicotine on the list of drugs subject to the 1906 Federal Food & Drugs Act.

Yet the nascent industry still faced substantial opposition. Henry Ford railed against cigarettes, which he called the "little white slaver," and Thomas Edison refused to hire cigarette smokers. Because Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Honus Wagner ordered American Tobacco to take his picture off their baseball cards, these remain extremely rare and valuable. But Gately documents how smoking got a huge boost from world war. Tobacco's ability to calm nerves, suppress hunger, and provide a moment of calm during the horror of the trenches made it "as indispensable as the daily ration," said U.S. General John J. Pershing. President Franklin D. Roosevelt even declared tobacco an essential wartime material. By 1949, the percentage of British men who were hooked on the weed rose to 81%.

Today, smoking's foes have regained strength in the U.S.--perhaps too much, Gately seems to believe. "To the 1.2 billion smokers of the world, tobacco is not just a killer, but a pleasure, a comforter and a friend," he argues. Sadly, this is one of the few junctures where he attempts to tackle the larger meaning of this plant and its extraordinary ability to addict and harm those who fall for its allure. Instead, for the most part, he delivers a dizzying--and often haphazardly organized--recitation of facts. Tobacco's often bizarre past comes across clear as day--but the big implications remain veiled in smoke.

Carey covers science from Washington.

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