This story from The Boston Globe (via Arts & Letters Daily) relects on the changing place of tobacco in contemporary American society. The efforts of various municipalities and anti-smoking activists have largely managed to turn the cigarette into a symbol of knavery rather than gentry.
As A.S. Hamrah recounts, “Smokers were once thought to make the best conversationalists, the best soldiers, even the best husbands.” The merits of tobacco have been celebrated, for example, by J.R.R. Tolkien in his Lord of the Rings trilogy (recall the effusive praise heaped upon pipe-weed by the hobbits). As a friend of mine once said, “Smoking just looks cool.”
Of course as cultural mores change, this claim is more open to challenge than it has been previously. Is it instead a mark of our sophistication that we are evolving into a “smokeless” society? My first impression of Calvin Seminary when I began attending in 2000 was the number of people standing around outside smoking. I was flabbergasted, not having been reared in the Dutch-American culture of West Michigan. Then I heard tales of how in years past professors and students used to smoke in classrooms, during meetings, and in the lounge areas, as layers of smoke would collect on the ceiling.
Of course, one of the defining characteristics of European culture that I’ve found in my admittedly brief travels was a love of smoking. While many anti-smoking efforts have been put in place in the EU, I wonder if the per capita number of smokers is greater in other parts of the world, compared with the US.
Hamrah relates that “wherever tobacco has been smoked it has also been railed against, massively taxed and banned.” According to one of the books reviewed in the story, King James I increased the tax on tobacco to 4,000 percent to dissuade his subjects from smoking, “claiming that it made its users unfit servants of the state.”
One thing we can be sure of is that such policy “solutions” tend to not be very effective. The anti-smoking activists have done a good job of realizing that to defeat the culture of smoking, people’s attitudes toward the practice need to be changed, not simply through taxation or legal prohibition, but through changes in popular culture.