Smoking History Lesson, #2: The 1500s


The sole purpose of the “heroic” and “honorable” anti-smoking industry is to educate the hapless, freedom-loving citizenry about the dangers of tobacco and therefore save their lives. At least, that’s what they claim their motivations are. But what would that excuse come to if it turned out they began their “cause” before anyone even knew tobacco was dangerous? What if they started this game hundreds of years before any science on the matter was done?

By the early 1500s, smoking had caught on. Along sea routes, Portuguese sailors began planting tobacco crops. By the end of the end of the century, they began to establish small individual tobacco gardens, growing the crop for personal use and for barter.

Jean Nicot, French ambassador in Lisbon, brought tobacco plants back to France with him during the course of his ambassadorial duties. He promoted it as a cure for sores, tumors, and headache in 1559 and sent it to members of the French court. He even presented tobacco to Catherine de’ Medici, the queen mother, to cure her of her migraines.

It’s no wonder: by this time, Native Americans had long been using tobacco to treat a variety of ailments—from headaches to respiratory issues—and European doctors were always eager to find new remedies. University of Seville physician Nicolás Monardes wrote in 1571 of tobacco’s many “virtues and wonderful effects,” including as a cure for cough, asthma, toothache, and headache.

During a time in which the scientific community was pretty much in agreement that tobacco was “good for you”–a sort of cure-all with many medicinal benefits—there were still anti-smokers. Even back then, smokers had to put up with verbal abuse from them. Early anti-smokers didn’t let their complete lack of evidence prevent them from proclaiming smoking was physically, mentally, and spiritually unhealthy.

“Among other evil practices,” wrote Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes in his 1526 Summary of the Natural History of the Indies, “the Indians have one that is especially harmful, the inhaling of a certain kind of smoke which they call tobacco, in order to produce a state of stupor.” It’s unclear where Valdes obtained data indicating the practice was “harmful,” or what, exactly, he meant by “stupor.” Perhaps such details didn’t matter to him because, as he put it, “I cannot imagine what pleasure they derive from this practice.”

“I cannot understand what enjoyment or advantage they derive from it,” added Bishop Bartholome’ de las Casas at about that same time. Presaging modern anti-smokers by upwards of 450 years, the Bishop called the practice of smoking a “disgusting habit.”

In 1590, Pope Urban VII, whose papacy lasted less than two weeks, still somehow manages to find the time to ban all forms of tobacco “in the porchway of or inside a church, whether it be by chewing it, smoking it with a pipe or sniffing it in powdered form through the nose.” The penalty for breaking his edict was excommunication from the Catholic church (very harsh for its time).

The shortest papacy in history, therefore, is considered to be responsible for the first “public” smoking ban. And just like today, there was no valid scientific justification to back it up.

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