It may seem very strange to us nowadays, but during the early history of smoking tobacco, it was initially considered to have a lot of health benefits. Even so, there were some detractors of smoking at the time, but they were mainly in the minority.
The practice of smoking as we know it today first became widespread in Europe in the late 16th century when it was imported from South America. The tobacco plant grows naturally all over the American continent. American Indians started using tobacco possibly as early as 2000 years ago, as part of their medicinal practices and religious rituals. They believed that their prayer was carried to the god in the puff of smoke. They only smoked this plant for these rituals and not every day like modern smokers, so it did not do the same amount of harm to them.
In 1492 the explorer Christopher Columbus was offered some tobacco leaves as a gift by an Indian tribe, and not long after that, sailors started bringing tobacco back to Europe with them, where it was widely grown. It was very popular at first because of its reputed healing properties. Many thought of it as a cure-all for just about anything! Doctors frequently prescribed it as a treatment for all kinds of ailments. However, even early smokers started to notice ill effects. It was in 1572 that Sir Francis Bacon returned from the Americas and introduced pipe-smoking to Britain. Then in 1610, he noted that smoking was a habit that it was very difficult to give up! In 1604 King James I of England, a man clearly ahead of his time, said that smoking was:
“Custome lothesome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black and stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless”.
He was the first to impose a heavy tax on tobacco.
The English prose writer and clergyman, Robert Burton believed that smoking was only harmful in so far as it was not regulated by smokers. He said this about tobacco in 1621, in his famous work The Anatomy of Melancholy:
“Tobacco, divine, rare, superexcellent, tobacco, which goes far beyond all their panaceas, potable gold, and philosopher’s stones, a sovereign remedy to all diseases…But, as it is commonly abused by most men, which take it as tinkers do ale,’tis a plague, a mischief, a violent purger of goods, lands, health, hellish, devilish, and damned tobacco, the ruin and overthrow of body and soul.”
In 1826 nicotine was discovered by scientists, who realized that it was a dangerous drug. Apparently researchers in Germany identified the link between tobacco and lung cancer in the 1920s, which gave rise to the first anti-smoking campaign. Then in the 1950s scientists in Britain discovered (or re-discovered) and demonstrated how smoking causes cancer, and the scientific evidence continued to grow, which resulted in political action on smoking. For example in 1965 tobacco products were no longer advertised on TV in Britain, and the US followed suit by banning the TV ads in 1971. In 1966 the health warnings on cigarette packets began to be used.The makers started manufacturing more “healthy” cigarettes, with filters and low-tar.
There have been many lawsuits, especially in the 1980s, against tobacco companies from people suffering smoking-related diseases. Naturally the tobacco companies did not advertise the health problems smoking causes, but appears now that they knew all along how harmful it was and kept manufacturing the products to keep people hooked all the same!
Money speaks loudest.
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Picture courtesy of www.digitalgallery.nypl.org