Wednesday, 11 March 2015

On Superstition: The Profit/Prophet in Smoking

Kids' Messages in Art for the People they Love who Smoke
Why Do People Smoke? 

According to ASH (Action on Smoking and Health)  smoking has been around since 1 BC when it was used for 'medicinal and ceremonial purposes' and the first time there is pictorial evidence of tobacco being smoked is on Guatemalan pottery from a vase from 600-1000 AD. According to Smoking with Gods, the Mayan culture associated smoking and smoke with its Gods, in its art, history and religion. Capnomancy is the name of the method of divination by smoke, kapnos being the Greek for smoke and manteia the Greek for prophecy  (Wikipedia).

As well as smoke's great powers of prophecy and in religious ceremony, it was seen as having medicinal properties. In Spain, in 1571 smoking was considered to cure 36 different 'maladies' and in 1577 it was recommended for toothache, worms, halitosis, lockjaw and cancer. At the time of the plague from the 1660s to early 1700s, smoking was thought of as a prevention method and school masters whipped their pupils in Eton if they did not smoke! (AJ. Bell)

It is not surprising then to find that tobacco became popular (even leaving out its addictive properties). No we are not surprised. This is how we understand tobacco's place in popular culture to have come about. Even when people stopped believing in the 'medicinal'  qualities, it still had a traditional draw which associated it with wellbeing and made it aspirational and 'cool' (ACS). And after all, was it not just in recent years we found out about it's dangers?

Not so. 400 years ago in 1604, King James I of England said smoking was 'harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs'. So why did it take another 400 years for legislation to catch up? Because it was and is profitable. In fact King James, instead of making this 'harmful' and 'dangerous' custom of smoking unlawful, he imposed a heavy tax on it and made a profit.

Meanwhile people smoked and people died. Even people who didn't smoke were affected. From adults in bars to children in cars, people were and are still in many places suffering the effects of passive smoking. The exposure of children to second hand smoke dropped by nearly 60% from 1996 to 2006 in the UK with such smoking laws as began in Ireland in 2004. However, until 2007 children could still smoke from the age of 16. In the UK 600 children start smoking every year and although the number of over all smokers in the population has dropped below 20% that is still 1 person in every five people.

So, what started as a superstition over a thousand years ago for its medicinal and ceremonial values to see the Gods in the rising smoke, is still with us. Smoking is still with us and still killing us. A sort of self-harm that brings us closer to death. Maybe that's how smoking works, it helps us see our Gods... sooner.

ASH (2014) Key Dates in the History of Anti-tobacco Campaigning, http://www.ash.org.uk/files/documents/ASH_741.pdf

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