Tobacco: the deadly weed?

Back in the 1960s, when growing tobacco did not yet put you on a par with cooking crack cocaine, my stepfather had a mixed farm where he grew tobacco, as well as keeping cattle and horses.

Tobacco is an annual.  It grows from seed, the large leaves growing from a single central stalk.  When the plant reaches maturity, it flowers, and the leaves begin to wither and die, starting at the bottom and working to the top.  The leaves were picked by hand and packed in a kiln house for smoking.

At this point, my stepfather drove his cattle into the tobacco field, to eat the stalks and trash that were left behind.  The cattle seemed to like it and the animals certainly looked sleek and healthy, though I’ve no idea whether they gained any psychotropic benefits as well.

My stepfather swore that their cattle ticks dropped off after a few days on a diet of tobacco trash, and now that I keep dogs, who get dosed every month with pills that keep down their flea burden, I take his observations more seriously than I did at the time.

Tobacco, Nicotiana, comes from the Americas.  It is part of the Solanaceae family, which other American crops, including the tomato, capsicum and chili, and potato, but also a number of other plants known for their psychoactive properties: mandrake, deadly nightshade and datura.

Tobacco was cultivated in the New World long before the arrival of Columbus in 1492.  It had religious as well as medical significance, though it was probably smoked for pleasure as well.  Columbus was offered a bunch of dried leaves by an Arawak when in Hispaniola, and in the journal of his first voyage, he describes ‘men and women with a half-burnt weed in their hands, being the herbs they are accustomed to smoke’.  Spanish colonists quickly picked up the habit of smoking, and it spread to Europe in the second half of the 16th century.

Quiringh Gerritsz. van Brekelenkam, Interior with a smoking and a drinking man by a fire (1664), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The first printed references to tobacco in English date from the 1590s, including a book from 1599, which gives a suggested order for a menu:

  1. Fruites
  2. Hearbes
  3. Flesh
  4. Fish
  5. Whitmeats
  6. Spice
  7. Sauce
  8. Tabacco

Apart from beginning with fruit, and placing the fish between the meat and poultry, a ceremonial dinner would not be very different today.

A debate soon arose as to whether tobacco was a good or a bad thing.  Various physicians argued that tobacco had health benefits.  Like another new fashionable drug, coffee, it was considered a drying agent, though I find it hard to believe that anyone who has ever heard a smoker’s cough could think it would reduce the production of phlegm!

On the other hand, from the beginning some disapproved, and the most famous of these was the King, James VI and I.  As a school child, I can remember being told that James’s Counterblaste to Tobacco (1604) was a good example of why he was called the ‘wisest fool in Christendom’.  These days, I think he was on to something:

A custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the Nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the Lungs and in the black stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.

He also pointed out that it was unpleasant for a husband to subject his

wholesome, and clean complexioned wife, to that extremity, that either she must also corrupt her sweet breath therewith, or else resolve to live in a perpetual stinking torment.

An early example of the argument that kissing a smoker is like kissing an ashtray.

Nowadays it is easy to see the sense of James’s argument against tobacco, and sneer at those who advocated its health benefits.  But when I remember those cattle with their sleek, tick free coats, I wonder.

In the 17th century, most people spent their lives infested with various parasites: lice and fleas on the skin, and intestinal worms of various sorts in the gut.  Did smoking ease their burden?  The main dangers from tobacco, such as emphysema, lung cancer and heart disease, take many years to develop.  In the 17th century, many men (and we are almost entirely talking about men) would not live long enough for these diseases of middle and old age to have an effect.  But the advantages of relieving their parasite burden would have an immediate impact.

Because tobacco was expensive, and occasionally unavailable because of an erratic supply chain across the Atlantic, the level of addiction must have been relatively low.  Tobacco was also usually smoked in long pipes, too, at a cooler mouth temperature than today, reducing the risk of oral cancer.

I’m guessing, but I suspect that tobacco in the 17th century did have some health benefits, just as the physicians claimed.

In any case, although James may have disapproved of tobacco, he recognized one of its most important traditional benefits: by 1619, he had introduced an excise tax on tobacco imports.  Ever since, governments have been locked in a moral battle between their disapproval of the drug, and the money they make from its consumption.

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One response to “Tobacco: the deadly weed?

  1. Pingback: An axe, a rifle and a box of matches | Historians are Past Caring

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