Taste for tobacco

14th May 2004 at 01:00
Rodrigo de Jerez had a strange life. He searched Cuba looking for China. He was imprisoned by the Spanish inquisition. And he was Europe's first smoker. In fact, it was the smoking that landed Columbus's fellow explorer in jail. On Jerez's return to 15th-century Spain, his neighbours were so disconcerted by his lighting up in public that they reported him to the priestly police. When he was released many years later, he found a nation hooked on the deadly weed.

Tobacco use was widespread in the Americas, where Jerez took those first fatal puffs on a primitive cigar. People are believed to have started experimenting with the plant around the time Jesus was turning water into wine. That miracle might not have particularly impressed early Peruvians, who liked their tobacco in the form of hallucinogenic enemas.

Rich Aztecs in the court of Montezuma mixed tobacco with resin and smoked pipes after their evening meal. The poorer ones just rolled some leaves and lit up. The Mayans also indulged, while a Mississippi tribe conveniently believed that their god liked revealing himself in rising smoke.

So when European explorers splashed ashore, the locals clearly believed they were honouring them with gifts of their favourite plant. Columbus is said to have sensibly thrown his present away. This leaves Francis Drake credited with introducing tobacco to England, while Walter Raleigh wins the prize for cheek by trying to get Queen Elizabeth I to take a drag.

By 1600, though, there were whiffs of an anti-smoking lobby. James I published his "Counterblast to tobacco", declaring the plant "an invention of Satan" and banning it from pubs. Alas, he later changed his mind and nationalised the booming industry.

Around the same time, others were also trying to stem the brown tide. Pope Clement VIII threatened anyone who smoked in a holy place with excommunication. Tobacco courts in Russia punished addicts by slitting their lips. All to no avail, as the nasty habit spread. But one brave effort to cure humans of their wilful addiction is worth a mention. In 1968, a non-tobacco cigarette, Bravo, appeared in America. Its main ingredient was lettuce. It didn't sell.

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