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The History of Smoking



Smoking is a strange habit, anyone seeing it for the first time would find it odd that people should take lighted leafs and put them in their mouth. Yet the habit is almost as old as man himself. The earliest evidence we have of smoking dates way back to 5000BC, when it was used in Shamanistic rituals. We find pots from this time with pictures of smoking engraved into them.


                                    MAYAN INDIANS


The Mayan Indian’s, are the earliest known recreational smokers. They began smoking and chewing tobacco leaves around 1000BC.


It also played a large part in their ritualistic ceremonies, as these people believed that the smoking of tobacco formed a bridge for them to communicate with their dead and the spirit world.

We know this to be true as carvings dating back to these times depict a priest smoking tobacco through a tube. We must be thankful to the carver for preserving this history for us.


The Indians also used the tobacco leaves as a form of medicine. They would mix them with herbs and other plants, and administer them to the sick and wounded.


As the Mayan Tribes separated and moved throughout the continent of America they took their precious tobacco plant with them, planting and cultivating it in their new habitat.


                               CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS


So smoking in the America’s continued but was still unknown to Europeans, until in 1492 an explorer, on a Spanish expedition, named Christopher Columbus arrived in San Salvador.


It must have been an awesome event for the Indians to see these men, so different from anything they had seen before, with their light complexions, arrive from a world they could never even have imagined existed.


 The Mayans thought they must be divine beings, sent to them by the God’s, and as such the explorers were treated as honoured guests, and presented with many precious gifts which included the Indians beloved tobacco leaves.


Columbus however was not impressed by tobacco and threw the leaves away, yet he was probably the first European to witness smoking.


                                       RODRIGO DE JEREZ 



The title of the first European to smoke must go to Rodrigo De Jerez, another explorer who landed in Cuba later that same year. He too witnessed the Mayan Indians smoking but unlike Columbus Jerez then developed a taste for tobacco himself.


He took the leaves and the habit back to Spain with him.

The Spanish were amazed to see a man with smoke coming from his nose and mouth. It wasn’t long before he came to the attention of the Inquisition, who quickly decided that he must be devil possessed and imprisoned him. Jerez spent the next seven years in an Inquisition prison, as punishment for his” sinful and infernal habits”, the power to exhale smoke from his mouth could only have been given to him by the devil.


Ironically whilst Jerez remained a prisoner of the Inquisition smoking became popular, with many Spaniards becoming regular smokers.


By the 1530’s tobacco had become so popular that it was being cultivated on specially created tobacco farms in the Caribbean, and exported into Europe. It had become big business and the European business moguls of the day were cashing in on it.



                                       NICHOLAS MONARDES


By 1571 when Monardes published his paper on, “TABACO AND HIS GREATE VERTUES”, It was already widely believed that the tobacco leafs possessed “great medicinal virtues”.

 Monardes who was a Spanish physician, concluded in his famous paper that 36 known illnesses could be cured by the use of tobacco.

 These conditions ranged from minor ailments such as halitosis and toothache, to life threatening illnesses such as cancer.

With medical opinion on its side the smoking habit was growing fast.


                                    SIR WALTER RALEIGH



Sir Walter Raleigh one of the famous Elizabethan explorers is credited with bringing the smoking habit to this country, he had begun pipe smoking whilst visiting America, (The New World). There he had met the Governor of Virginia, Ralph Lane, and it was he who introduced Raleigh to the habit.

Virginia was a British colony and it was to be a main source for UK tobacco.


There is a famous story that on his return to England Raleigh was sat in his favourite chair smoking his pipe,  his servant saw the smoke hovering around his master and believing him to be on fire quickly ran for a bucket of water with which he doused Raleigh.


In 1600 it is reputed that Sir Walter offered a pipe to Queen Elizabeth, so she could try the smoking habit for herself.

Elizabeth was so ill she believed she had been poisoned and did not succumb to the habit.


In 1603 King James VI of Scotland, became James Ist of England, uniting the two crowns.

James did not like the habit of smoking, publishing one of the first ever anti-smoking pamphlets,  in which James places the blame for this habit on the Native Americans and holds them responsible for the habit spreading to Europe.

Unusually in a time when the medics were praising the curative properties of tobacco, James showed remarkable insight as he complained of the danger posed to the lungs, and also realizes the dangers of passive smoking. He rails against the “odour and hateful smell to the nose”.


These days we are used to and indeed expect the tax on cigarettes to rise in more or less every budget. Yet it was James who started this trend way back in 1604. He so disliked the smoking habit that he decided to levy heavy taxes on tobacco,  authorizing  the 1st Earl of Dorset, Thomas Sackville to levy a charge of six shillings and eight pence on every pound of tobacco imported, or £1 for every three pounds. This was an enormous sum of money in the early 1600’s.

James was obviously of the opinion that if you were going to persist in this unpleasant habit, he would make sure you paid heavily for it, and his coffers would benefit.


1665 was an oppressively hot summer, London was a place of squalor and filth. It must have stunk as all rubbish, (including human waste), was tossed out into the streets and left to rot and fester. It was the perfect breeding ground for vermin, and in these disease ridden conditions the flea’s which carry the Bubonic Plague flourished. They spread this terrible fatal disease, (also known as The Black Death), by attaching themselves to the rats who were prolific in this unhealthy environment. Just about every corner and home in London was rat infested, and so the Plague spread rapidly. No one at the time knew how it spread or how to stop it, and people frantically looked for anything they thought might ward off this horror. It was believed by many that to carry a posy of Roses would protect you from this deadly sickness, and so the children of the day began chanting a rhyme:

                                         Ring a ring a roses

                                        A pocket full of poses

                                  Atishoo, atishoo we all fall down.


There was already a strong belief at this time that smoking tobacco actually cured many diseases, and that it was sure to improve the health. It was a short step from this to believing it could ward away the plague.

Eton Public School for Boy’s, seems to have believed in the beneficial effects of smoking, as they issued an edit stating that every boy in their charge must smoke a pipe of tobacco every morning, “in order to make them strong”. One particular boy refused the pipe, and as a consequence was flogged.

Smoking really had taken a strong hold on the wealthier people of this country. It was still too expensive for the working classes.


Throughout the seventeen hundreds smoking carried on in much the same pattern that had been established in those early years. However the eighteen hundreds were to see major changes in the tobacco industry.


In the early years of the nineteenth century cigars were introduced to the country for the first time.


By 1828 scientists had discovered that the pure form of nicotine was actually a very dangerous form of poison.


In 1852 the first matches, (which were known as Lucifer’s), were manufactured. Making lighting up easier.


By the middle of the century mass production of cigarettes was under way. Having now entered into the years of the Industrial Revolution machines were able to produce 200 cigarettes every minute.

Cigarettes were now easily affordable and no longer the domain of the wealthy.


Despite the scientific evidence that nicotine was poison the establishment were still in favour of smoking. So much so, that free cigarettes were issued as a basic ration to all troops, no matter whether they were in base camp or operational. This was done in order to keep up the morale of the troops, it succeeded in deeply entrenching the habit of smoking  in the working classes.


The twentieth century was to see major changes in attitudes to smoking.


In 1908 the Children’s Act banned the sale of tobacco to children under the age of sixteen.


However tobacco was still included in rations for the troops in WW1.


By the mid 1920’s a habit that had always been almost exclusively male, began to attract women. The great Hollywood films of this time depicted glamorous female stars smoking, often through elegantly crafted cigarette holders.

Coco Channel of the legendary Paris fashion house was rarely pictured without a cigarette.

These images had a massive impact and it became fashionable for women to smoke.

In the 1930’s cigarettes were being marketed as an aid to slimming.


In WW2 yet again cigarettes were freely given to the troops, and by the year 1947 there was a 43% increase in smoking among British men.

As late as 1948/9 my father served in the Royal Ordinance Corps and was stationed in Egypt. He tells me that each week they received a free tin of 50 English cigarettes, in addition they could also get coupons for the Naffa which entitled them to 50% off further purchases of cigarettes.  


Throughout the forties and fifties these smoking trends continued, even professional sports performers were regular smokers. The legendary footballer, Stanley Mathews was actually  used in advertising to promote smoking.


In 1952 when King George VI died from lung cancer the link had not yet been made between smoking and cancer. Yet the medical research was accumulating, and there was mounting concern within the medical profession that cigarettes could in fact be carcinogenic, and later that same year the link was established.


In December 1952 Readers Digest made the revolutionary decision to publish a ground breaking article entitled “CANCER BY THE CARTON”, in which it revealed for the first time, to the public, the growing medical concern about this possibly fatal link. It was an amazing piece of pioneering journalism and probably marked the beginning of a shift in public attitude toward the smoking habit.


A study was published by two doctor’s, named  Wynder and Graham, showing that an investigation carried out on 650 men suffering from lung cancer, had shown that 95% had been smokers for 25 years or longer.

The first tobacco withdrawal clinic, was opened by Salford Health Authority.


 In 1964 the US Surgeon General announced that smoking causes lung cancer. As a result television and radio advertising were banned and health warnings on cigarette packets were made compulsory.



By the late sixties and early seventies advertising was being restricted.

Credit can be given to the RADIO TIMES for implementing a voluntary ban on cigarette advertising, as early as 1969. Two years later in 1971 a ban was placed on tobacco advertising in cinemas and on public transport.


It was in the 1980’s that public perception really began to change. People were accepting the message which the health warnings were putting out.


In 1982 The British Medical Association asked the government to ban tobacco advertising in any form.


1984 saw the launch of National No Smoking Day, a day which encouraged people to stop smoking for one day, to evaluate their habit. This has become an annual event.

In 1987 following a fire at Kings Cross Tube Station the advertizing of tobacco was banned on the London Underground.

This anti-smoking trend continued through the eighties, and by 1992 The Home Office announced that smoking could be named as a cause of death on death certificates. 

In 1988 an American court made a landmark ruling by awarding damages  against a tobacco company to the family of a deceased smoker.


The government of the island of Guernsey took the lead in being the first part of the British Isles to completely ban tobacco advertising in 1996.


The UK government followed their lead in 1999, banning advertising in main land Briton.


Moving into the 21st century, the warnings on cigarette packets became much starker than ever before, and in 2004 Ireland became a real trail blazer when it was the first country in the world to ban smoking in public places. This action was followed two years later by Guernsey, who implemented a ban in public and workplaces.


In 2007 a law was brought in making it illegal to smoke in public and workplaces throughout England. Smoking was now widely regarded as an unpleasant, anti-social habit.

As interesting as the history of smoking may be, the fact remains that humanity could have done without it!

Nicotine is highly addictive. Smoke containing nicotine is inhaled into the lungs, and the nicotine reaches your brain in just six seconds.

While not as serious as heroin addiction, addiction to nicotine also poses very serious health risks in the long run.



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