Thank You For Not Smoking

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The world’s first anti-smoking tract—the opening shot in the conflict that would eventually lead to Bamberger’s arrest—was published in 1604 by England’s James I, one of history’s most famous tobacco-phobes. Entitled “A Counterblaste to Tobacco,” James’s treatise ridiculed the medicinal and prophylactic properties then ascribed to the plant, excoriated his pipe-smoking subjects for wasting their money and befouling the English air, and finally concluded with a famous—and, to non-smokers, still applicable—peroration: Smoking, James said, was “a custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harniefull to the braine, daungerous to the Lungs, and in the black stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoak of the pit that is bottomelesse. ” Unfortunately, as James and his antismoking successors found out, the habit once adopted is a difficult one to break, on either an individual or national basis, and smoking continued unabated in England.

The story was much the same elsewhere, as kings and potentates throughout the known world found that no amount of whippings (Russia), beheadings (Turkey), nose slittings (India), and other extreme measures could suppress the habit. Murad IV of Turkey is typical of the early Eastern anti-smoking crusaders. Determined to enforce the royal no-smoking edict, Murad reportedly prowled the streets of seventeenth-century Istanbul incognito, accosting suspected tobacco sellers, begging them to sell him a small quantity, offering them payment far in excess of the going rate and swearing eternal secrecy. Then, if the merchant’s greed overcame his caution and he produced the forbidden substance, Murad would personally behead him on the spot, leaving the body in the street as a grisly warning. But despite Murad’s efforts, smoking continued—prospered, actually—in Turkey. (Poetic justic was served almost three centuries later, when Turkish tobacco cigarettes called “Murads”—featuring testimonials by the unfortunate Fatty Arbuckle—became one of America’s most popular brands.)

In contrast to European and Oriental anti-smoking campaigns, early American efforts were mild. In the 1630’s the Massachusetts colony banned tobacco sales and public smoking, public being defined as any place where more than one person was present. In the 1640’s Connecticut also banned public smoking and required smokers to obtain a smoker’s permit. These laws generally were ignored, however, particularly after the clergy took up the habit; Massachusetts soon repealed its prohibitions, the Connecticut ones eventually faded away, and smoking vanished as an issue for the next one hundred and fifty years.

It resurfaced in 1798, when Dr. Benjamin Rush published an essay called “Observations upon the influence of the Habitual use of Tobacco upon Health, Morals and Property.” Smoking and tobacco chewing were harmful to the mouth, stomach, and nervous system, Dr. Rush observed, in addition to being generally filthy and expensive habits. The doctor went on to draw a direct cause-and-effect relationship between tobacco use and drunkenness, a correlation that would persist throughout subsequent antismoking campaigns. Dr. Rush was followed by a number of antismoking reformers. Dr. Joel Shew, for example, carefully catalogued—often in repellent detail—some eighty-seven maladies directly attributable to tobacco use, including insanity, cancer, and hemorrhoids. The eugenicist Orson L. Fowler believed tobacco possessed certain aphrodisiacal properties—obviously a more damning charge then than it would be today—and warned, “Ye who would be pure in your love-instinct, cast this sensualizing fire from you.” The Reverend George Trask, author of the widely circulated 1852 tract “Thoughts and Stories for American Lads” (subtitled “Uncle Toby’s Anti-Tobacco Advice to His Nephew Billy Bruce”), pioneered the misuse of statistics in warning of the dangers of tobacco. “Physicians tell us that twenty thousand or more in our own land are killed by [tobacco] every year,” Trask wrote in 1859. “German physicians tell us that of deaths of men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, one-half originate from this source.” Joining in the ante-bellum antismoking campaign were such men as Horace Greeley (who described a “long nine” cigar as “a fire at one end and a fool at the other”), Henry Ward Beecher, and even P. T. Barnum.

But despite the best efforts of Uncle Toby and his allies, smoking remained a minor cause in an era filled with great ones, and by the beginning of the Civil War, antismoking “agitations” (to use the contemporary term) had all but died out. What finally brought the movement back to life was a sleek and—to some—rather stylish little European import that eventually would outrage American antismokers more than any previous manifestation of the tobacco habit. We are speaking, of course, of the “coffin nail,” the “little white slaver,” the “little white hearse plume”—the cigarette.