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As Movember begins, we’ve come to the end of Stoptober, the NHS-backed drive towards helping individuals to quit smoking, and this seems a good time to take a historical look at the relationship between the state and public health initiatives.[1] Although the dangers of nicotine abuse have long been established as medical orthodoxy, recurrent governments have restrained from passing a complete ban on the habit. But, as well as through medical education initiatives such as Stoptober, there has nonetheless been a drive since the 1980s to reduce overall consumption and thus increase the health of the nation.[2]

Of course in many minds, this is in direct contrast to how tobacco has been managed in the past. Rather than being a cause of myriad diseases, early consumers believed in the medicinal qualities of the plant and the ‘holy herb’ was extolled as a medical panacea across Europe that could cure a wide-range of diseases.[3] Queen Elizabeth I’s own physician, Roger Marbecke cited its ability to cure agues, oedema, and rheumatism; whereas numerous contemporaries alluded to its civilising qualities for improving the deportment and intelligence of its consumers.

These beliefs contributed to an exponential increase in consumption levels. By the 1630s, tobacco had become the first mass-consumed foreign commodity in England, preceding chocolate, coffee, and tea as consumer goods. Parodied and celebrated in both print and on the stage, the plant was established within a broad milieu, but particularly favoured among the fashionable and wealthy “roaring boys” of metropolitan London.[4] Contributing to a national surge in consumption levels of intoxicating substances, tobacco’s pretence as a medicinal herb justified its recreational usage.

However, despite looking very different to the 21st century mode of consumption, there are some similarities in how this habit was managed by the authorities of early modern England. Importantly, high taxation was introduced – 2d per lb to 6s 10d – a rate of increase not since exceeded. In order to justify this tax hike, King James I, published a powerful polemic that attacked ‘drinking smoke’ on a variety of grounds. His famous A Counterblaste to Tobacco encompassed social and political issues but it is interesting to note that the premise of James’s argument was that smoking tobacco was ‘hurtfull to the health of the whole body. He alluded to its ‘bewitching qualitie’ and the subsequent weakness that people suffered from becoming habitual daily users of the plant.[5]

chute_tobaccoJames’s allegations about the detrimental effects that tobacco had on the body thus refutes the claim that there was a homogeneous shared understanding of the plant as a ‘universal panacea’. On the contrary, A Counterblaste to Tobacco existed within a rich discourse of the era which witnessed debates that fiercely contested these assertions.

Today this discourse is non-existent: modern scientific orthodoxy has prevailed against old systems of medicine.[6] This neo-infallibility is demonstrated in government/NHS-backed initiatives, such as Stoptober, in which the public as consumers, via informative literature, are assured of the dangers of smoking and thus discouraged from the habit.

Yet importantly James’s Counterblaste was also a piece of public literature composed by the government, intending to inform, persuade, and ultimately influence the way that the general public viewed the habit of tobacco consumption. The king discounted the claims that its medicinal use was, in the long run, beneficial, for he saw that people became dependent on this type of medication – as though it were too much of a good thing.

The health concerns in James’s text are mirrored by the way that modern government institutions endorse support public health literature, which make clear the social costs of tobacco with regards to public health. For example, a recent study has claimed that up to one in five deaths in the UK can be attributed to smoking, in itself a shocking affirmation. Related to this, the NHS cost of caring for those who have smoked – the treatment and medicine, as well as propaganda media initiatives like Stoptober – was estimated to have been £5.2 billion in 2005/6 – with no evidence for this rate decreasing.[7]

This correlation – that personal consumption impacts on the costs of society – resonates with the early modern campaign against its consumption. Central to James’s argument that tobacco harmed the body was that when this was transposed onto the country at large, or body-politic, the sum total was far worse. Understood as a corporeal metaphor, this drove home the broader significance of tobacco consumption. A nation addicted to an alternative medicine not only made for weak servants and soldiers, but subverted the king’s authority as chief-physician of England.

Today the relationship of the individual to society as a functioning component of the economic fabric, is understood in similar mutually inclusive terms. The role that the state plays as nurturer to the populace is also similar. Yet, whereas the first campaign against the consumption of tobacco failed in convincing the world that it was indeed harmful (especially in face of the capital profits that it could generate), our own certainty that it is damaging to health, combined with its impressive economic costs, has created a powerful (and yet very recent) holy alliance against a now unholy herb. Moustachioed tee-totallers have never been seen so positively.

Alex Taylor completed his BA at The University of Sheffield this summer. He is currently undertaking an MA Early Modern History after becoming addicted to the study of tobacco and its wider social, political, and cultural impacts.

Image: Johann van Beverwijck, early 17thC tobacco smoking [Wikicommons]


[1] Along with broadcasting some slightly patronising advertisements, Stoptober promised to provide support packages and Mobile App or text assistance containing tips on how to quit along with the inherent dangers pertaining to the habit.

[2] This drive has largely manifested through hypertaxation and government legislation, as well as medical education initatives. Examples included a 191% rise in the price of tobacco between 1980 and 2012 and the 2007 ban on smoking in enclosed public places. [Source: Lifestyle Statistics, Health and Social Care Information Centre, Statistics on Smoking, (15 August 2013) www.hscic.gov.uk]

[3] The Portuguese Physician, Nicolas Monardes, in the 1570s, was the first European to promote tobacco as a medical cure.

[4] Some historians have even argued that their ‘manhood’ was constructed via the smoking of clay-pipes.

[5] James’s understanding was based on classical Galenic models and the theory of humors: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humorism

[6] This neo-infallibility is demonstrated in government/NHS-backed initiatives, such as Stoptober, in which the public as consumers are assured of the dangers of smoking and thus discouraged from the habit.

[7] Lifestyle Statistics, Health and Social Care Information Centre, Statistics on Smoking, (15 August 2013): www.hscic.gov.uk

Tags : Counterblaste to Tobaccoearly modern attitudes to tobaccohistory of smokinghistory of tobaccoJames Istate attitudes to smokingStoptobertobacco
Alex Taylor

The author Alex Taylor

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