It's a drag

25th November 2005 at 00:00
In the 16th century, tobacco was described as a 'creature comfort', now it's regarded as a dangerous and anti-social habit. Laurence Alster tracks the changing attitudes to smoking

Many people detest smoking, but few have the power to stop others from doing it. Having backed away from a total ban, the present Government is now threatened by Labour MPs who plan a vote to outlaw smoking in all pubs.

After the recent defeat on the Terrorism Bill, the last thing Tony Blair wants is another on the Health Bill. But, as the prime minister is now very much aware, smoking sometimes fuels almost uncontrollable passions.

History shows that it was ever thus. Take, for example, King James I of England. The king hated smoking. Published in 1604, his A Counterblaste to Tobacco warned that the "vile and stinking custom" was "loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain and dangerous to the lungs".

Obviously, anyone caught smoking by James I could expect a severe ticking-off. It was worse elsewhere. The Tobacco Court established by Mikhail Fyodorovich, the first Romanov tsar and contemporary of James I (Fyodorovich reigned from 1613 to 1645), sometimes castrated smokers, flogged them to death or, more forgivingly, slit their lips. Murad IV, 17th-century ruler of the Turkish Empire, was an even more enthusiastic persecutor, roaming the streets of Constantinople in disguise and lopping the head off anyone who granted his wish for a sly smoke.

All of which puts into perspective the current Government's plans to ban smoking in most workplaces, restaurants, pubs and clubs in England by 2008.

These intentions, though, have less to do with anyone's animosity than with the recognition that smoking, be it through pipe, cigarette or cigar, is harmful, not only to the smokers themselves but to those nearby. Today, this view is supported by several decades of scientific research; but history suggests that official distaste for smoking was made clear almost from the moment Europeans first inhaled tobacco fumes.

Like so much else since, the practice was imported from what is now America, discovered by Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus in 1492.

Ordered by Columbus to scout the interior, fellow explorer Rodrigo de Jerez came across native men and women "with a little lighted brand made from a kind of plant, whose aroma it was their custom to inhale". Rodrigo tried and liked the custom. Others however, did not, especially at home in Spain.

Believing that the smoke issuing from Rodrigo's mouth and nostrils was proof of alliance with Satanic forces, Inquisition officials promptly threw him into a dungeon.

Others were luckier. When tobacco was introduced into France in the 1540s, it was described as a "creature comfort". By 1603, even the strictures of James I did not stop 25,000 pounds (11,340kg) of tobacco from being imported into Britain from the Spanish colonies in the Americas. Perhaps thinking that people would respond more to lighter purses than to his hard words, the monarch raised tobacco tax to a punishing rate, but in the long term it had little effect; by 1615, some 7,000 shops in London sold tobacco, most of which was consumed as cigars and snuff, and in pipes.

The cigarette - tobacco rolled in a tube of paper as opposed to the tobacco leaves of the cigar - is thought to have first appeared during the Crimean War of 1853-1856, when Turkish soldiers introduced its forerunner, the Papelete, to their British and French comrades-in-arms. On returning home, soldiers brought their hand-rolled smokes with them and the fashion caught on. It was a modest start to what was to become a global industry that would make millions for some while killing millions of others.

Before that, though, a means had to be found whereby the cost of cigarettes could be lowered through mass production - hand-rolling cigarettes being a time-consuming and labour-intensive operation that meant a high product cost and a consequent drag on sales. Increased production through mechanisation would bring prices down; but where was the machine that could make cigarettes?

The answer came in a device patented in 1881 by the American James Bonsack and adopted by James Buchanan Duke, the head of a small tobacco company, who installed two machines in 1884. The effect was immediate; just one Bonsack machine could produce up to 120,000 cigarettes a day, around 40 times the number that could be made by hand. On this side of the Atlantic, WD and HO Wills of Bristol had, by 1888, 11 such machines churning out cigarettes for a population increasingly hooked on a habit that was cheap, fashionable and, apparently, harmless.

Not that everyone thought so. British antismoking activists condemned the practice more than anything for its immoral nature, a vice from which the young in particular needed to be saved. "We permit the cigarette, a microbe of the devil's own make, to run riot and play havoc among the boys and girls of our land," declared the campaigner John Quincy Adams Henry in 1906. Similar horrors were prophesied 20 years later by Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the scout movement: "Fellows who smoke before they are 20 generally turn to rotters afterwards. Nobody can mistake (tobacco smoking) for manliness."

Nobody? Baden-Powell could not have been more wrong. Mindful of such criticism, cigarette manufacturers and advertisers took care to link their products with the combined manliness and patriotism exemplified by the Hero sailor on the Player's Navy Cut packet. The link was strengthened at the time of the First World War, in which soldiers of most nations were allocated a tobacco ration, often supplemented by their officers, their families and assorted public-spirited organisations.

So strong an association of smoking with masculinity meant that those women who were bold enough to light up risked not only symbolic de-feminisation but also, according to an article in Girl's Own Paper in 1898, off-putting physical changes: a moustache, it was thought, was the likely outcome of a woman smoker's "constant movements of the lips." In the same year Dr Zollner, an "expert" in the field, maintained that, since "love and tobacco" could not thrive in the same atmosphere, a female's reproductive capacity was reduced by the habit. And, for the writer of a letter to the Daily Mail in 1906, smoking threatened women's innate devotion to hearth, heaven and hubby: "Women who smoke neglect their homes and their families; they neglect their social duties; their God they have ceased to pay heed to; their husband's authority they reject with ridicule." Worse still, on both sides of the Atlantic, female smokers were often viewed as being, at best, "easy," and, at worst, prostitutes. In 1904, a New York judge gave a woman 30 days in jail for smoking in front of her children.

This was a tricky problem for tobacco companies looking to sell more cigarettes to women; a partial solution, they concluded, lay in women's abiding concern with their weight and shape. A Lucky Strike campaign of 1925, urging women to "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet", was so successful that confectionery company executives were left fuming. And when the makers of that same brand paid several young women to smoke their "torches of freedom" in the 1929 New York Easter parade, soaring sales showed their peers had got the message: smoking signalled liberation.

And far more besides. From the 1920s, Hollywood films had identified smoking with sophistication, glamour and excitement, powerful messages in the decades when up to half the UK population visited the cinema at least once a week. Marlene Dietrich sharing a cigarette with Gary Cooper in Morocco (1930), Humphrey Bogart puffing his way through Casablanca (1942), Paul Henreid passing one of two cigarettes lit in his own mouth to Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (1942); all these and countless other scenes showed millions worldwide how, when and why to smoke.

But, in the mid-1930s other, more powerful voices were also being seen and heard. While deploring US cinema in general, senior Nazi party members in Germany denounced its images of smoking in particular. Their diatribes were part of a sustained offensive against an activity which, it was argued, not only threatened the physical health, but blighted the moral fibre of a people destined to rule Europe and beyond.

While the Germans deserve credit for being the first to find an epidemiological link between smoking and lung cancer, the Nazi attempts at deterrence were predictably repellent. Smoking was denounced as "a corrupting force in a rotting civilisation that has become lazy", a practice of Jews, Gypsies and Blacks, all of whom were viciously caricatured in anti-smoking propaganda posters and newspaper articles. In the spring of 1944, while his armies were gassing and shooting civilians of all ages and races, Hitler personally ordered a ban on smoking in German trains and buses to protect women conductors. Though valuable, the German findings were tainted in the post-war years by having been supported by so repulsive a regime. But it was only a matter of time before their conclusions were confirmed by a more reputable source.

The critical moment came in September 1950. Writing in the British Medical Journal, Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill concluded, in "Smoking and Carcinoma of the Lung", that their research confirmed King James's suspicion of three centuries previously that tobacco was "dangerous to the lungs". "Smoking," they wrote, "is a factor, and an important factor, in the production of carcinoma of the lung." A similar judgment was published in 1957 by the US Surgeon General, who confirmed that "excessive smoking is one of the causative factors in lung cancer."

The tobacco industry counter-attacked, arguing that to find a connection between smoking and lung cancer was in no way to prove that one was the direct cause of the other. Placed in 448 newspapers across the US in 1954, an advertisement by the tobacco companies headlined "Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers" pointed out that, among other questionable propositions, "I statistics purporting to link cigarette smoking with (lung cancer) could apply with equal force to any one of many other aspects of modern life.

Indeed the validity of the statistics is questioned by numerous scientists." None of the scientists was named.

Thus began an enduring feud between the tobacco industry and government health departments, concerned individuals, pressure groups and the medical profession. Long gone were the days when, as in the 1920s, the American Tobacco Company could win the approval of nearly 21,000 doctors for Lucky Strike by offering each doctor five free packs of the brand.

Mirroring this feud was growing public awareness of the dangers of smoking and the manufacturers' attempts either to deny altogether or at least to minimise the effect of these dangers, through canny publicity and advertising. Traditionally, cigarette advertisements had offered strong pictorial links between smoking and a whole cluster of desirable attributes, most especially sociability, glamour, masculinity and excitement. With smoking now getting such a bad press, these and other lifestyle features needed even stronger emphasis. None was more effective than the Marlboro advertisements from the 1950s onwards, the most famous of which featured modern cowboys in traditional settings: round the campfire, riding tall in the saddle, scanning the horizon for pesky varmints.

Intrinsic to these images was the ubiquitous cigarette. The connotations were obvious: the cowboy lifestyle represented independence, virility and enviable health.

Naturally, no one was shown coughing, spluttering or spitting. Which is exactly what Wayne McLaren did as a result of having been encouraged to smoke the brand he was advertising. Dying of lung cancer in 1992, the erstwhile Marlboro cowboy made good use of the press and television to embarrass his former employers. So too did former Lucky Strike and Chesterfield model, smoker and victim of throat and lung cancer, Janet Sackman. Interviewed in the same year, her wasted body and gulping vocals grimly gave the lie to the advertising slogan her youthful image had endorsed: "Get on the Lucky level where it's fun to be alive."

By this time, however, restrictions on tobacco advertising were well established. A blanket ban on television advertising was introduced in this country in 1965, and six years later health warnings first appeared on cigarette packets. The next two decades saw the imposition of even more restrictions, leading to the most recent - parliamentary legislation to ban all forms of tobacco advertising, including sponsorship. Supplementing these measures were frequent television campaigns featuring sickeningly realistic case studies.

Overall, these measures seem to be working. In 1948, an estimated 65 per cent of men and 40 per cent of women in the UK were regular cigarette smokers, since which time these rates have more than halved. On the other hand, the rate at which new smokers - mostly young people, with a slight majority being female -are joining established smokers has been increasing for some time.

Good news for the tobacco companies, certainly, but bad news for a Government conscious of the health-care costs of those who suffer from tobacco-linked disease. Or is it? For cynics, evidence that the Government is less than committed to the anti-tobacco cause was, in 1997, its proposed exemption from advertising restrictions for Formula One racing, the boss of which was prominent Labour donor Bernie Ecclestone. The proposal was dropped, but only after a public outcry. The same cynics also contend that genuinely deterrent measures against smoking - a punitively high increase in cigarette prices, say -would decrease tax returns from people who are anyway likely to die early enough not to incur the high cost of long-term medical care or take much of their state pension.

But even critics of government policy acknowledge the knottiness of the relationship between tobacco tax income and health-care costs. Far more straightforward is the attitude of the tobacco companies towards shrinking markets and revenue. Reeling from successful multi-billion dollar law suits, and with smokers dying at a faster rate than they are being replaced by new ones, the companies are having to look around both for substitutes and new recruits. It is on expanding markets in the developing world and in Eastern Europe that they have trained their sights. Such is their success it is predicted that, by 2030, around 70 per cent of tobacco-related deaths will be in developing countries. Advertising and sponsorship of cigarettes is far easier in countries like China and Turkey, where there are few government restrictions and anti-tobacco lobbies.

As ever, tobacco advertisements peddle not just a product but a highly desirable parallel universe. Take, for example, the re-branding of Camel cigarettes - in the 1980s, the traditional camel motif was restyled into a hip, jeans-and-shades-wearing dude so as to draw young people to the brand.

Gender attitudes are similarly researched, reworked and exploited. The fact that, globally, there are far fewer women smokers than men makes them a prime target. Women in developing societies "are becoming more independent and, consequently, adopting less traditional lifestyles. One symbol of their newly discovered freedom may well be cigarettes," read the June 1990 editorial of the influential industry journal Tobacco Reporter.

Hence the abundance of advertisements in developing countries that feature slim, attractive, Western-style women, with words like "slimline", "slender", and "long". Images and slogans that present cigarettes as a symbol of, and a passport to, success, popularity and emancipation are common. "You've come a long way, baby," read the Virginia Slims advertisements which, with their mixed condescension and mock-congratulation, so infuriated US feminists when they first appeared in 1968; in several more traditional societies around the world the same brand now urges women to "Be you", or tells them, "You're on your way".

Where to? The answer is only too easy and all too sad - the cancer ward.

The World Health Organization estimates that the number of women smokers in developing countries will increase from the current rate of around seven per cent to around 20 per cent by 2025. Also, a higher proportion of young people in these countries than in the West will adopt the habit - and eventually bear the consequences.

Based on a true story, the film The Insider stars Russell Crowe as a scientist intimidated by a tobacco company whose malpractice and king-sized lies about health risks he uncovers, but only at the expense of his marriage and his career. It is an excellent film, even if its Hollywood sheen might persuade some more of its sincerity than its accuracy. Are the tobacco companies really that callous, that dishonest, many will ask. In which case, the last word should go to the real-life tobacco executive who, when asked by former Winston cigarettes advertising model David Gurlitz if he smoked the brand, replied: "We don't smoke that shit. We just sell it.

We reserve the right to smoke for the young, the poor, the black and the stupid."

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