Can modern smokers blame the devious advertising of tobacco companies for their inability to quit smoking? After all, those catchy slogans have beguiled billions over the decades: You’ve come a long way baby; I’d walk a mile for a Camel; Winston tastes good like a cigarette should! And perhaps the worst of the lot: More doctors smoke Camels.
The Marlboro Man campaign that used real cowboys as models was such an astounding hit that it ran for thirty years, from the 60s all the way into the 90s. One of those cowboy gods was Wayne McLaren, who died of lung cancer in 1992. Before he passed on, McLaren appeared in a television spot showing him in a hospital bed. An earlier shot of him as the drop-dead gorgeous tough guy who’d sold millions of cancer sticks was juxtaposed over this shot, even as a voiceover detailed the dangers of smoking. Impossible to adequately express my admiration for men like this — humble enough to admit their mistakes even at the bitter end, and who spread the true word about nicotine — that eventually it kills, agonizingly and humiliatingly. The great actor John Huston, father of Angelica Huston, was another such hero.
Fortunately, intense negative publicity combined with increasing awareness of the health risks of smoking have pushed our planet forward from the Smoking is Glamorous stage to harsh death warnings on cigarette packs: Smoking kills; Smoking clogs the arteries and causes heart attacks and strokes. And yet the issue of why three billion humans still continue to smoke is just as big and complex and old as human nature itself, and is tied in with the primeval story of tobacco itself.
As far back as five to six thousand years ago, tobacco and hallucinogenic drugs were ingested in order to enter the ethereal world of the spirits. Ancient North American tribes carried tobacco in their pouches as an item of trade, sealing bargains with it and smoking it in pipes during sacred ceremonies. Even their kids, for god’s sake, puffed away! These ancient folk believed tobacco was a gift from the Creator and that their prayers drifted directly up to heaven along the stream of exhaled smoke. Tobacco was also used to numb the pain of earache, toothache, and as a poultice; combined with other herbs, it apparently cured colds, asthma and even the dreaded tuberculosis.
It was only in the late 1920s — long after automated cigarette-rolling machines had spread the habit of smoking across the globe — that scientists identified a link between smoking and lung cancer. Et voila, the first anti-smoking campaign in modern history was launched.
Most smokers tend to be gregarious and impetuous thrill-seekers — and almost all are hooked as adolescents or young adults. Now commercial ciggies are evil thingies that contain hundreds of chemicals used mainly to enhance addictive potency, among them formaldehyde, the stuff used to embalm corpses. (American commercial ciggies are regulated to 599 substances!) The active substances in cigarettes trigger chemical reactions in nerve endings, heightening heart rate, alertness, and reaction time, and releasing dopamine and endorphins, both of which are associated with pleasure. Recent statistics indicate that about 3 billion people are currently in thrall to Old Nick, insidious King of Smoke.
We’ve come to this sorry state of affairs despite tobacco’s mighty adversaries: James I, King of Scotland and England, produced the treatise A Counterblaste to Tobacco way back in 1604, and enforced a 4000% tax increase on tobacco. It didn’t work: by the early 17th century, there were 7,000 tobacco outlets in London alone!
Murad IV, sultan of the Ottoman Empire (1623-40) banned smoking on the grounds that it diminished public health and morals — again with minimal effect. The Chinese Emperor Chongzhen banned smoking two years before his death and the overthrow of the Ming dynasty, while the Manchu of the Qing dynasty proclaimed smoking a heinous crime. The Shoguns of Japan’s Edo period came down heavily on tobacco plantations; in 1634, the Patriarch of Moscow sentenced those who flouted the ban imposed on tobacco to have their nostrils slit and their backs flayed; Pope Urban VII forbade smoking in holy places. During the Great Depression, that conscienceless beast Adolf Hitler condemned the habit of smoking as a waste of money.
And yet the use of tobacco continued to sweep through the world like a noxious tide. Frustrated by their many failures to halt it in its tracks, many governments turned its cultivation and trade into lucrative monopolies — and by the mid-17th century, most major civilizations had assimilated the smoking of tobacco.
As scientific evidence against the use of tobacco mounted in the 20th century, the tide finally turned. Tobacco companies were forced to admit contributory negligence in the 1980s, which resulted in The Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement — originally between the four largest US tobacco companies and the Attorneys General of 46 states — which restricted tobacco advertising and mandated health compensation, and led to the largest civil settlement in United States history.
While rates of smoking in the United States have sharply declined since then, those who succeed in quitting are most often affluent professionals. In the developing world, however, tobacco consumption continues to rise. Today Russia leads the pack as top consumer of tobacco followed by Indonesia, Laos, Ukraine, Belarus, Greece, Jordan, and China.
The medical indictment against tobacco is more than damning: smoking leads to heart attacks and strokes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema, and cancer of the lung, larynx, mouth, pancreas and bladder; it increases the risk of Crohn’s disease, and sarcopenia, which is the age-related loss of muscle mass and strength. The World Health Organization estimates that tobacco caused 5.4 million deaths in 2004 and 100 million deaths over the course of the 20th century — and still, despite all this appalling evidence, billions continue to smoke!