tobacco plant
The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances
by Richard Rudgley
Little, Brown and Company (1998)

Whilst tobacco (Nicotiana spp.) is certainly a stimulant, in sufficient quantities (such as those used traditionally by American Indians, for which see below) it can have what, for all intents and purposes, may be called hallucinogenic properties. Certainly the South American Indian shamans see it as such, but this appears not just to be due to cultural conditioning (apprentice shamans are instructed beforehand of the nature of the visions they are going to see) but also to the actual chemistry of tobacco. Tobacco contains the harmala alkaloids harman and norharman, and the closely related harmine and harmaline are known hallucinogens. The levels of harman and horharman in cigarette smoke are between forty and 100 times greater than in tobacco leaf, showing that the burning of the plant generates this dramatic increase. The effects of nicotine on the central nervous system are still far from being understood. The hallucinogenic effects of tobacco become far more explicable when it is borne in mind that the strains of tobacco smokes by the American Indians were far more potent than our commercially produced varieties. Furthermore, the amounts consumed by them were often considerably greater than even the most ardent chain-smoker is able to manage.

        Petum was a widely used early European word for tobacco and is said to be derived from the Tupi-Guarani Indian word for the plant. The word nicotine is derived from the surname of Jean Nicot de Villmain, who brought back Nicotiana rustica to France in 1560. Although he was not the first to do this, he nevertheless got the dubious honour of having this poisonous substance named after him. The word tobacco is first mentioned (in the form tabaco) by Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes (1478-1557) who uses it as a term for the act of smoking and also, in his later writing, for the leaves of the plant itself. The origin of the word tobacco was once believed to derive from a place name (the two candidates being Tabasco in Mexico and Tobago, one of the Lesser Antilles), although this is now rejected as a theory.

        It is well known that tobacco is, by nature, an American plant, the use of which, when discovered by the Europeans, was rapidly spread across the globe. Less well known is the fact that there was another region of the world in which wild tobacco not only grew but was used by humans completely independently of any American influence. That region is the arid interior or 'outback' of Australia. Records from Captain Cook's 1770 expedition record that the Aborigines chewed a herb, most likely a reference to tobacco (probably Nicotiana suaveolens).

        The cultural history of tobacco use begins was back in the prehistory of South America. According to current archaeological understanding, humans first made their way south to Chile around 13,500 years ago. These Palaeoindians, as they are known, reached the lowlands of Patagonia, the Pampas and Gran Chaco by 11,000 years ago. This is the natural home of the tobacco plant, from where it would spread to enchant and addict humankind the world over. According to Johannes Wilbert, the leading expert on the use of tobacco by the South American Indians, these Palaeoindian hunter-gatherers did not make immediate use of the plant. Instead such a use did not emerge until the Indians began to cultivate and tend it in their gardens some 3,000 years later. These pioneer horticulturalists grew some twelve different species, Nicotiana tabacum and N. rustica being the most significant. Unlike many anthropologists and ethnobotanists who have worked closely with native peoples who use psychoactive plants in their religious life, Wilbert does not trace the origins of shamanism to the use of such substances. He sees the Palaeoindians as following an ascetic path to the spirit world; the shift to using entheogens only came with the advent of horticulture.

        Not only were the Indians of South America the first to domesticate tobacco, they also discovered all the ways of using it, even some which are almost unknown in the West today. As Wilbert says, they: 'chew tobacco quids, drink tobacco juice and syrup, lick tobacco paste, apply tobacco enemas, snuff and smoke. In addition, they administer tobacco products topically to the skin and to the eye.' Their appetite for tobacco is staggering and even the most inveterate chain-smoker pales by comparison. Shamans on the Orinoco have been seen to smoke five or six three-foot cigars in a single ritual session. The toxic effects of tobacco are well understood by the shamans of South America and, as Wilbert says: 'masters take their apprentices after months or even years of progressive nicotine habituation to the very brink of death.' Shamans, whether they use psychoactive substances or not, seek 'near-death' experiences in order to gain spiritual insight into the origins and causes of disease. This is the rationale behind the systematic use of the intoxicating effects of nicotine. The strength of native tobacco and the great quantities of it used can induce hallucinogens which are seen to be of great importance by the tobacco shamans.

        South American shamans believe that, whilst the human hunger is for food, the hunger of the spirits is for tobacco. Thus, by taking tobacco in its various forms, the shaman is making direct and intimate contact with the spirits. Before the arrival of the Europeans in the New World tobacco use seems to have been restricted to ritual use. The secular use of it was largely due to the influence of Europeans; this holds true for both South and North America.

        Despite the prominence of tobacco in world history and the enormous amount of research conducted on the native peoples of North America, there are still some unsolved mysteries concerning its early use in Indian culture. The widespread custom of smoking in other parts of the world does not, of course, always involve the use of tobacco. The smoking of cannabis and opium are two obvious examples of this. Whilst neither of these substances existed in the New World before the European contact period, the continent was not without various other plants suitable for smoking. The spread of tobacco northwards into North America from its southern homeland is a highly complex issue; the exact routes which it took and the time scale in which this culturally dramatic event took place are still obscure. The discovery of pipes, for example, does not simply indicate the presence of tobacco; other plants could have been smoked in this way before tobacco became known in the areas in which such artefacts have been discovered. The numerous smoking plants that are known to have been smoked by North American Indians on their own or in conjunction with tobacco are a further issue. Another mystery in the history of tobacco use concerns the chewing of the plant with lime by the Haida and the Tlingit peoples of the north-west coast. Chewing tobacco was a comparatively unusual habit in traditional North American Indian societies and the use of lime even more so. Lime (or similar alkali preparations) is added to a number of other stimulating substances throughout the world as it releases more of the psychoactive properties of the plant in question. Such a use of an alkali is found in the Asian and Oceanic use of betel, the Australian Aboriginal use of pituri and the South American use of coca. There are those who believe that the chemically highly effective use of lime was discovered in a single place and then the knowledge passed on to other cultures. This kind of argument (known as diffusionism) was once put forward to explain the use of lime among the Haida and Tlingit, the idea being that they borrowed it from the South Americans (presumable by long-distance communication by sea) and, even more improbably that coca-chewing had its ultimate origins in the western pacific use of betel. That the Australian Aborigines used an alkali additive in their pituri preparations in near-total isolation from the rest of the world shows quite clearly that such discoveries were made independently.

        To return then to the north-west coast. The Haida Indians inhabit the Queen Charlotte Islands off the west coast of Canada and the Tlingit live on the southern coastal mainland of Alaska. Both peoples were chewing tobacco when they were first contacted by Europeans and their respective mythologies attest its cultural importance. Tobacco was apparently the only plant cultivated to any significant degree by these groups before their adoption of some European customs. Both societies lived in a rich environment with access to abundant and varied foods and so had no need to toil away in gardens to supplement their diet. Thus, their motivation for cultivation was not for staple foods but to fulfil their desire for a steady supply of tobacco. Similar motivations for taking up the practice of agriculture have been found elsewhere in the world. The origin of agriculture and the reasons why it occurred are universally seen as among the most critical questions in human history. Why did people give up the millennia-long hunting-and-gathering lifestyle and suddenly start growing and cultivating plants? The standard answer has been that they did so to replace a precarious lifestyle with one based on security, with staple crops as their guarantee. Whilst this was no doubt true in many cases, the motivation seems to have been rather different. In the case of the Haida and Tlingit it is clear that the driving force was the need for tobacco.

        The Haida planted their tobacco seeds at the end of April, each separate pod being put in a mound of earth. The tobacco gardens were weeded regularly until September, when the crop was harvested. The leaves were dried by placing them on a timber frame over a fire. When dry they were put in stone mortars and pounded with a pestle. The lime admixture was made by burning shells and then crushing them into powder form. In order to avoid the burning sensations of the lime it was put in the middle of the tobacco quid and not, therefore, in direct contact with the inside of the mouth. Surviving records do not, unfortunately, tell us much about the psychoactive effects of their chewing tobacco, but it has been suggested that because they abandoned the cultivation of their local species (botanists think it was most likely Nicotiana quadrivalvis), when they encountered commercially produced trade tobacco it was weaker in its psychoactive effects than the newly available strains. The Tlingit are reported to have sometimes used the inner bark of pine instead of lime but this is highly unlikely to have made the resulting quid stronger in its psychoactive effects. In the extreme north-west of North America (Alaska and the Yukon) both Indians and Eskimos chew tobacco mixed with the ashes of a fungus but this is almost certainly a post-contact habit.

        When Columbus discovered America in 1492 (which had actually been discovered much earlier by the Vikings and, of course, millennia earlier by the first explorers of the New World, the Palaeoindians), members of his expedition became the first Europeans to witness the – to them – curious habit of smoking tobacco. When, in his journal, Columbus describes Indians: 'who always carried a lighted firebrand to light fire, and perfume themselves with certain herbs they carried along with them', he was not writing from his own observations but from the accounts relayed to him by Luis De Torres and another Spaniard who had been sent ashore on 2 November 1492. Jerome Brooks, a historian of tobacco use, has some interesting comments on this passage. He notes that De Torres was a learned man who knew not only his classical sources but also read Hebrew and Arabic. Since the voyagers had thought they would land in Asia, De Torres had been brought along to act as interpreter for Columbus when, as they hoped would happen, they gained an audience with the Great Kahn. The phrase 'perfumed themselves' is seen by Brooks to be that of De Torres rather than Columbus. De Torres would have known the work of the Greek historian Herodotus, who describes the ancient Scythian inhalation of cannabis smoke, and attempted to relate the wholly exotic New World practice of tobacco smoking to this Asian custom. There does not appear to be any evidence that either Columbus or any of his entourage brought back the novel plant to Spain on their triumphant return, although it is possible that some sailors in this or later crews brought it home in small quantities, an occurrence that would have gone unrecorded and therefore is impossible to confirm or deny.

        Amerigo Vespucci reached the mainland of South America in 1500 (his claim to have done so earlier is now rejected as a falsehood) and therefore met with tobacco-using peoples, but again there are no records of it being taken back to Europe by him. In 1518 Oviedo, the leader of the Spanish expedition to Mexico, provides us with the earliest description of what we know as a cigarette: 'a little hollow tube, burning at one end, made in such a manner that after being lighted they burn themselves without causing a flame.' Later reports give further details concerning such cigarettes, which were made of reeds and highly ornamented. One of the captains under the command of Cortez saw them for sale in the markets of Mexico – a very early reference to a tobacconist's!

        The generally accepted entry of the plant onto European soil occurred when Oviedo brought tobacco leaves back to Spain in 1519. In 1556 Andre Thevet brought seeds from Brazil to France and initiated its cultivation in Europe. Two years later it was first grown in the Royal garden in Lisbon. With the Europeans entering a whole new phase in their quest for global colonisation, they took tobacco on their travels and instigated its rapid spread across Asia. As this is a largely separate story it is detailed below, and for the moment I shall return to the Europeans' own views on the plant and their interpretation of its use by the Indians who had initiated them into the tobacco cult.

        The sixteenth-century physician Nicholas Monardes wrote that the Indian priests made liberal use of tobacco. He cites a case in which such a priest was asked questions which his patients expected him to be able to answer by means of a tobacco-induced trance. After inhaling tobacco the priest 'fell downe uppon the grounde, as a dedde manne, and remainyng so, accordyng to the quantitie of the smoke that he had taken, and when the hearbe had doen his woorke, he did revive and awake, and gave theim their answeres, according to the visions, and illusions whiche he sawe.' He also says that the Indians would chew tobacco and coca together, which would make them 'out of their wits' as if drunk. The early black slaves that were sent to the Americas were banned from drinking wine and, according to Monardes, used tobacco in a similar way to the Indians, namely to get intoxicated and enter trance states. Other early accounts paint a similar picture of the native use of tobacco. Edmund Gardiner, writing at the beginning of the seventeenth century, describes native 'enchanters' (i.e. medicine men) as getting drunk on tobacco smoke and then falling into a deep sleep. On awakening they would tell those present of the visions they had seen and interpret their divinatory meaning. Whilst Gardiner, in line with most of his contemporaries, interprets Indian experiences with tobacco as delusions caused by the devil, his and similar accounts make it clear that tobacco was attributed with inebriating and hallucinogenic properties by early Europeans as well as the Indians themselves. The modern smoker experiences neither of these effects, which seem to be caused by more potent strains of the plant, greater quantities consumed and cultural conditioning within a ritual context.

        Tobacco was gaining its adherents in Europe but supplies were not always forthcoming. As tobacco was both expensive and scarce the early British pipes were so small they became known as fairy pipes. In Scotland they were called elfin pipes and, apparently, later generations in Ireland saw them as the handiwork of the leprechauns and destroyed them when they came across them. In this early phase of tobacco use it was perceived in numerous conflicting ways as a manna from heaven or the smoke of hell itself, from panacea to poison. The fading echoes of its entheogenic use among the American Indians can be heard in this early phase of Europe's enchantment. Tobacco was certainly the muse of Sir John Beaumont, who described it as 'the philosopher's stone of the alchemists'. He was by his own admission enraptures by 'tobacconalia', as he called it. In an extract from his long (and undistinguished) poem The Metamorphosis of Tobacco (1602) he invokes tobacco:

By whom the Indian Priests inspired be,
When they presage in barbrous Poetrie:
Infume my braine, make my soules powers subtile,
Give nimble cadence to my harsher stile:
Inspire me with thy flame, which doth excell
The purest streames of the Castalian well,
That I on thy ascensive wings may flie
By thine ethereall vapours borne on high,
And with thy feathers added to my quill
May pitch thy tents on the Parnassian hill,
Teach me what power thee on earth did place,
What God was bounteous to the humane race,
On what occasion, and by whom it stood,
That the blest World receiv'd so great a good.

        Tobacco was seen by some as a medicinal plant of great value. Because of its association with henbane it was used in similar ways; for example, henbane smoke had long been used to alleviate toothache, and tobacco was said to be even more effective for this. To describe the effects of tobacco use as drunkenness was widespread in Europe. John Gerard, author of a famous herbal, also likened its effects to opium. One of its most vociferous opponents was King James I of England, who attacked tobacco smoking in no uncertain terms in his pamphlet A Counterblast to Tobacco (1604) describing it as: 'a custome lathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmeful to the braine, dangerous to the lungs, and the blacke stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomlesse.' Yet even the sovereign himself was powerless to prevent the spread of the habit and had to console himself by putting taxes on tobacco.

        Another opponent of tobacco was Barnabie Rich, who wrote in 1606: 'I thinke Flatterie at this day be in as good requeste as Tabacco, two smokie vapours, yet the one purgeth wise-men of their witte, and the other fooles of their money.' An anonymous diatribe of the 1640s describes tobacco as the most pernicious plant of all, with the one exception of hemp. Yet this is not a reference to the psychoactive effects of cannabis but to the use of the plant's fibre in making the hangman's rope – hemp being seen to attack the throat from without, tobacco from within.

        Tobacco smoking was no longer an exotic custom, it had become an integral part of English social life. At the beginning of the seventeenth century it is estimated that there were no fewer than 7,000 shops and other outlets where tobacco could be bought in the London area alone. Tobacco smoking had by now become such a commonplace habit throughout English society that Joverin de Rochefort, a French visitor, wrote in 1671 that in the town of Worcester children were sent to school with a pipe in their satchel. Even the most famous school in all of England was not immune to propagating the habit. A seventeenth-century English diarist by the name of Hearne wrote that during the Great Plague tobacco was considered such a medicinal boon that: 'Even children were obliged to smoak. And I remember that I heard formerly Tom Rogers, who was a yeoman beadle, say that when he was a schoolboy at Eton that year when the Plague raged all the boys of that school were obliged to smoak in the school every morning, and that he was never whipped so much in his life as he was one morning for not smoaking.'

        Although the pipe had been the most popular way to use tobacco it was, for a time, to be eclipsed by the habit of snuffing. By the mid-1680s it was integrating into the more exclusive English coffee-houses. In his History of England Macaulay haughtily wrote: 'The atmosphere was like that of a perfumer's shop. Tobacco in any other form than that of a richly scented snuff was held in abomination. If any clown, ignorant of the usages of the house, called for a pipe, the sneers of the whole assembly and the short answers of the waiters soon convinced him that he had better go elsewhere.' There were opponents to the habit who contemptuously referred to snuff users as 'snivellers'. A mid-eighteenth-century detractor, who described tobacco as a narcotic akin to opium, warned that snuff-taking was liable to cause the loss of the sense of smell, addiction, nasal tumours and cancer. Despite these early health warning a particular kind of snuff called Spanish sabillia was used to treat toothache. More generally the taking of snuff and the inevitable sneeze that it caused were seen as therapeutically clearing the head of 'superfluous vapours'. It was not just in the sphere of medicine that snuff was the subject of controversy. In 1686, during debates concerning the proposed canonisation of a Franciscan monk named Father Joseph Desa of Cupertino, moral concerns were raised about his use of snuff. These objections to his piety were dismissed on the grounds that, rather than his habit being a vice it was, in fact, a means of keeping alert during prayers and suppressing carnal lust. The conclusion was that the use of snuff should not stand in the way of his canonisation.

        Snuffs were classified according to their grain – fine (fine grain), demigros (medium grain) and gros (coarse grain). Many snuffs got their particular fragrance from the blending of the tobacco alone, whilst others had numerous odoriferous additives. The various names under which the great diversity of snuff brands were marketed (such as Old Paris, Cuba, Letter F and Dieppe Scented Bergamotte) foreshadows the evocative epithets that were later to be given to cigar and cigarette brands. In fact, the hundreds of different labels and wrappers that snuffs were packaged in represent the first phase of large-scale tobacco advertising. As is the case with tea and coffee, there were snuffs for different times of the day and different occasions. So too there were snuffs for the old, snuffs for the young, snuffs for ladies and so on. To use the wrong snuff at the wrong time or even the right snuff at the wrong time was considered a sign of vulgarity and ignorance. The extravagance of the age is epitomised by the lavish and luxurious consumption of snuff. The bill for the snuff used at the celebrations that accompanied the coronation of George IV came to the then enormous sum of £8,205.15. Lord Petersham, perhaps the greatest snuff connoisseur of them all, owned a snuff box for every day of the year, and, on his death, left behind some £3,000-worth of snuff.

        The snuff boxes of the era have become highly collectable objects on account of their intricate craftsmanship and the precious materials of which they were made. Many were decorated with motifs derived from classical legend. Experts consider the French gold snuff boxes to be the best, most other continental examples are seen to be derivative of them; only the English boxes were made in a markedly different style. Glass snuff bottles were also made but never had a comparable role as the snuff boxes, which stood out as socially charged emblems of class. Yet among the Chinese (who had been introduced to snuff by Portuguese merchants and Jesuit missionaries) the glass bottle was the main container used for storing snuff. For the Chinese the use of snuff has many parallels with its role in European societies. It was popular among the class of Chinese officials and, as in Europe, was intimately connected with ostentatious behaviour, snobbery and status. The habit reached its zenith in the middle to late eighteenth century and inspired developments in craftsmanship that even surpass the snuff and equipment of the French. The most striking Chinese innovation was in the making of glass snuff bottles with colour decoration painted on the inside of the glass. This was done by the artist holding up the bottle with one hand and painting the design with the other, using a brush that had its tip made at right angles to the handle. In the European case, although the other paraphernalia of the snuff user could not match the snuffbox either socially (as a means of advertising one's wealth and status) or artistically (in terms of refined craftsmanship), it was, nevertheless, essential kit for the aficionado. Although the rasp, pestle and mortar (for use at home), and miniature knife (for removing snuff from under the fingernails) all played their supporting roles in preparing and administering snuff it is the delicate snuff spoon that resonates with twentieth-century sensibilities. For it is an ancestral form of the silver cocaine spoon that was an integral part of the pretentions of the 'glamorous' phase of cocaine use during the 1970s.

        There were scares concerning the safety of snuff that also foreshadow later concerns with the quality of cocaine and other street drugs. In 1712 the Dauphine of France was poisoned after taking a pinch from a box of Spanish snuff presented to her. The news spread like wildfire and the Spanish snuff was portrayed as an insidious means of politically motivated assassination blamed on the (long-suffering) Jesuits. Certain other snuffs were apparently not the genuine article, containing no tobacco at all; even worse, its adulterants were rumoured to include ground glass – which, according to the lore of the modern drug scene, is also found in some batches of street drugs.

        Snuff use reached its zenith in the eighteenth century. At this time the average London tobacconist was making about 90 per cent of its profit from snuff. Similar figures have been recorded in the accounts of Fribourg and Treyer, the most exclusive snuff shop in London. In its first hundred years of business (from 1720-1820) only 10 per cent of sales were of tobacco and cigars. The patronage of King George IV consolidated the status of the shop as second to none. Other great historical figures who are said to have indulged in snuff include Napoleon, Dryden, Pope, Swift, Burns, Swedenborg, Dr Johnson, Congreve, Sheridan and Gibbon. Despite the fact that the popular image of snuff has it inextricably linked with the delicate and decadent figures of high society, snuff was also widely used by the lower classes. 'Irish Blackguard', distributed by Lundy Foot of Dublin, was the name given to a mixture popular with the Irish working class.

        Tobacco was, of course, popular among the leading lights of the arts and sciences. Among reported smokers were Isaac Newton, Jonathan Swift, John Milton, John Keats, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Thomas Hardy, Alfred Tennyson, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mark Twain. Those who opposed the habit included Rousseau, Voltaire, Goethe, Ruskin and, rather improbably, the inveterate drinker Swinburne.

        We have to go back in time to pick up the European introduction of tobacco to Asia (something which now, with full knowledge of its harmful effects, we could compare with the spreading of a plague), which was an element of the interaction between the two continents. Tobacco conquered Asia as it had conquered Europe. So complete was this colonisation by tobacco that the orientalist Berthold Laufer, writing in 1924, claimed that there was only one Asian people that did not use it. This tiny tobacco-free zone was said to be found among the Yami people of Botel Tobago, an island thirty-five miles east of Taiwan (although the name of this island makes one think that this is a leg pull).

        Laufer sketched out the three routes by which tobacco diffused through Asia. The first route began in Mexico, from where the Spanish took tobacco (mainly in the form of cigars) to the Philippines in the sixteenth century. Via the Philippines it reached Taiwan, parts of mainland China, Korea, Burma and south India. The beginning of the seventeenth century saw the Portuguese introducing tobacco by way of the maritime routes to many parts of Asia. According to Javanese sources, tobacco had arrived in Java in 1601. By around 1605 it was known in India and eventually filtered through to the more remote tribal areas of the subcontinent, where it was to play an important role in local mythologies. Its arrival in Japan – also around 1605 – was not particularly welcome, according to an account preserved in the diary of Captain Richard Cocks. In an entry dated 7 August 1615, he describes the Emperor ordering the large-scale burning of tobacco. Nevertheless, like James I, the Emperor seems to have been powerless to stop the growth of the habit, as at the same time Kyoto craftsmen were already manufacturing smoking pipes. Interestingly, tobacco chewing did not catch on in Tibet and the Far East (Korea, China and Japan) but was keenly taken up by the Indians and south-east Asians who had long-established traditions of chewing another stimulant, namely betel. Tobacco and betel are often chewed together, a habit which is also popular in New Guinea. The third and mostly northerly route was across Siberia. When the Russians introduced tobacco into Siberia (although the influence of the Chinese use of tobacco had already entered some parts of north Asia) the local shamans were quick to see its shamanic applications and added it to their traditional practices, despite the fact that to their Russian colonisers it was a drug with no religious connotations.

        Despite its overtly secular role in the modern world, tobacco is still referred to by a mixture of personifications, metaphors and folklore. J.M. Barrie, the creator of the eternal youth Peter Pan, had as his own elixir 'My Lady Nicotine', whom he describes with all the epithets worthy of a lover. He felt obliged to abandon his mistress tobacco on the eve of his marriage, lest his wife become jealous of his bachelor vice. In the 1950s Jerome E. Brooks, a historian of tobacco, describes the neophyte smoker becoming an 'incense worshipper paying tribute to the goddess Nicotine'.

        There are also a number of superstitions and folk tales surrounding tobacco and its use. Everyone knows that it is supposed to be unlucky to light three cigarettes from one match (for the third person) and almost everyone is aware that the usual explanation for this is that the time it takes from the striking of the match to the third light is just enough time for a sniper to take aim and fire. This is said to have originated in the trenches during the First World War, but Boer War veterans remember it from their day. It seems that it actually stems from a much earlier belief (traced back to the seventeenth century but most likely to be even earlier) that it is a bad omen to light three candles or lamps with a single taper. This belief may have been transferred to the cigarette as electric lights tended to restrict the instances in which the old form of the superstition could be put to use, thus the superstition survived by moving with the times. Another piece of folklore that has sprung up around the cigarette concerns the packet of the Marlboro brand which, if one had the eyes to see – and an active imagination – can be seen as being invested with hidden messages from the extreme right wing. Immediately suggestive are the very colours of the packet (red, white and black – exactly the same colours used in the Nazi swastika symbol); then, if the packet is opened out flat, the triangular interfaces between the red and white parts of the box are revealed as Ks, signifying the Ku Klux Klan. If this were not evidence enough (for the highly gullible), then if one reads the word Marlboro on the pack afterwards and upside down it spells out the anti-Semitic 'horrible Jew'. The best thing that can be said about this 'reading' is that, for creativity, it beats most of the daydreams conjured up by bored drinkers sitting around in bars picking apart their cigarette packets.

        In the botanical order of things, tobacco lies midway between the innocent potato and tomato on the one hand and a sinister cluster of hallucinogenic weeds on the other. The social standing of tobacco has swung from one extreme to the other throughout European history. Often, even in recent times, smoking has been widely accepted as an innocuous or even positive pastime. It has been in times of social upheaval that the cigarette has really come into its own. During the World Wars tobacco was seen as an indispensable part of the soldier's staple diet, helping him combat the combined assaults of cold, hunger, fear and boredom. The morale of the troops often depended on the uninterrupted supply of cigarettes to the front line. Smoking provided a solace that food simply could not. In times of mass poverty and unemployment we might expect that smoking would decline for economic reasons. This would make sense if we acted in such a utilitarian fashion as some would have us believe, but human nature is altogether too capricious to function in such a straightforward way.

        In the current social climate, tobacco-smoking is one of the most exemplary acts of political incorrectness (and this, in itself, might suggest that it is due for a short-lived revival, for there is no better way to get people to do something – particularly for the young – than admonish them for even contemplating it) and medical opinion has swung the pendulum firmly (and probably permanently) back towards the negative pole. Tobacco is now seen as one of the most virulent of poisonous plants, surpassing its relatives (such as the old witches' herbs henbane and belladonna) by its sheer popularity and ubiquity. The clear-cut liberal argument to the anti-smoking lobby, namely that it is a citizen's own private business if he or she wishes to smoke such a dangerous but licit substance, has collapsed in the wake of the discovery of the phenomenon of passive smoking, which makes the habit interfere with the rights of other citizens.

        In recognition of its awesome properties, native Americans traditionally restricted their use of tobacco by smoking only in the context of sacred ceremonies. Our secular society, with no recourse to such means, has sought to limit it via medical repudiation: a message that seems slowly to be getting through. Yet the genie of tobacco shows no signs of disappearing overnight in a puff of smoke. With more deaths to its name than all the illicit narcotics put together, there can be no doubt that tobacco is the most dangerous drug in the world.

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