Column: This Smoker’s Glad Bush Is in Big Tobacco’s Pocket

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Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in history at the University of Illinois.

On the matter of what to do about smoking and purveyors of smoke, there is as much confusion in our nation’s capital as there was some 400 years ago in the Old World. Then, European governments were not worried about tobacco’s health detriment; indeed, many physicians considered tobacco a curative for a host of ills. But its use had the unfortunate by-product-—a kind of second-hand smoke problem, if you will-—of setting ablaze wood-constructed villages and leaving Lord only knows how many inhabitants homeless. Accordingly, prohibitions on its use were issued, but people thumbed their butts, so to speak, at government and continued smoking. Prohibitions went the way of the 1920s. Tobacco remained at least officially in disfavor until the same governments realized the stuff’s revenue possibilities. Then it became to hell with the hamlets and homeless.

Now, in our white-housed seat of power, confused shifts are, at times, better known as “policy.” No doubt when it comes to half-baked missile programs, confusion be gone. Foolish consistency, take the helm. But when it comes to personal health versus the economics of politics—-in this case, campaign contributions from the tobacco industry—-it appears it’s every man, woman, and child for himself, herself, and him/herself, to put it eloquently in our present and evenly gendered English language.

Stunning as it seems, the Washington Post on June 21 implied a White House state of confusion on the tobacco issue, editorially imploring “If it's [Bush’s] position that smoking is none of the government's business, let him say so. If it is to some extent the government's business, what does he intend to do about it?” Where has this editorial staff been for the last few decades? Regarding any confusion over potential good versus tangible campaign cash, the GOP opts for the money every time. Thus, lucid policy can ably emerge from otherwise muddled confusion. It’s a paradox thing.

And I couldn’t be happier about it. As a smoker—-one of those societal villains who at any minute may decide to whack scores of fellow countrymen by blowing smoke out the living-room window-—I’m with George W., Karl Rove, and corrupt money on this one. My confederate smokers and I have taken enough abuse from social Dudley-Do-Rights, and it’s time to salute government’s absolute inaction. True, W. has thrown anti-smoking activism in reverse only in exchange for cash, but a few of us see the nobler cause of civil libertarianism at work.

As a historian I prefer to view these things, understandably, from a historical perspective. With a little digging I discovered all of today’s fuss, bewilderment, and confusion over what to do about smoking started with one Rodrigo de Jerez in November, 1492. A sailor under Columbus’ command, he became the first white man to get “hooked,” while on a mission to Cuba with the world’s first smokers and civil libertarians, Native Americans. Though smoking among white men soon became common in the Spanish New World, official Spain itself associated the habit with heathen religious practices. The anti-smoking, anti-civil libertarian campaign had begun, literally with religious fervor. But Rodrigo had helped establish a geographical haven for smokers, and I doubt there’s even a statue of him in Philip Morris’ lobby.

In North America, some of England’s non-tobacco-producing colonies placed restrictions on smoking as early as 1647. The New Haven colony, for instance, banned smoking by all under the age of twenty-one, decreed against public smoking, and limited tobacco’s purchase to a physician’s prescription. But New Havenite and other colonial poohbahs were fighting a hopeless battle. Many families simply raised their own stash. Tobacco users and related botany lovers have always found a way to indulge. And government and health disciplinarians have always been powerless against the enduring right of self-spoilage.

For example, in 1853 there came a marvelously written condemnation of tobacco by professional physician and disciplinarian Joel Shew. Dr. Shew was rabidly anti-tobacco; a kind of 19th-century C. Everett Koop. He countenanced nothing about it, freely mixing scientific observations with moral revulsion. In Shew’s professional opinion, tobacco was “nauseous, loathsome, disgusting, offensive, and ... capable of suddenly destroying life.” This public indictment of smoking, of course, led to tobacco’s wider use.

Some effects of smoking as discerned by Shew were tremors, a “fickled mind,” melancholy, and hypochondriasis—-“that most troublesome and intractable disease.” There were also “hysteria” (commonly a female malady unrelated to smoking, but now men were falling victim through lighting up); vertigo and palpitations that led to insanity (connection unexplained); and “softening of the teeth.” Laudamun abuse could not have compared to the plague of smoking in Shew’s book, just as heroin is now suspiciously claimed to be easier to kick than nicotine.

Unwilling to allow scientific facts to speak for themselves, Dr. Shew recruited the aid of public intellectuals such as Henry Ward Beecher and Horace Greeley. Beecher wrote in Shew’s little volume that “snuffing and blowing, or smoking and reeking, or chewing and spitting, form important parts of daily duty to the exceeding annoyance of all that are pure.” Plainly he was the pioneering advocate of prissy admonitions on second-hand smoke. Greeley, for his part, objected that smokers and chewers were a social affront to chaste women. These smoking scoundrels “puff their detested fumes into the face and eyes…, spatten the walk, and often soil the costly and delicate dresses of the promenadors with their vile expectorations.” He refrained from condemning every smoker as a blackguard, but “show me a genuine blackguard ... who is not a lover of tobacco … and I will agree to find you two white blackbirds.”

Greeley was actually going easy on us, for one-hundred-fifty years later it is seemingly axiomatic that all smokers are blackguards, all blackguards are smokers. Greeley’s parsing exceptions have been cleared from the table by majority sentiment. My civil-libertarian mind, as rabid in convictions as was Dr. Shew’s, finds this a sad occasion. There reigns in America a permissible brand of anti-smoker McCarthyism in which extremism is no vice. Smokers are as ostracized and bad-mouthed as much as winos, dope peddlers, and liberal Democrats. The time has come for alienated smokers to embrace their role as rare birds of multiculturalism and early subtractions to Social Security payouts.

For a change it comforts one aggrieved minority that some of the White House’s anachronistic policies appear to the press as confused, cautious inertia. Yet on this extraordinarily singular case, this democratic-socialist smoker can honestly say, “God bless George W. Bush.”

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Scott Harwood - 7/11/2001

The front page is no place for editorials. I did not vote for GWB, so I can address this objectively. You have accused the Bush administration of taking bribes from the tobacco lobby without one single shred of proof or even an example. If insinuation is all that need, where is your outrage at the Democrats taking bribes from education and labor unions?

You have the nerve to call yourself an historian, but your writing is pure opinion, accusation, speculation and drivel. You present few facts and your writing has the appearance of being politically driven. I pray that you are not a teacher, although after reading your article, it would not surprise me to learn that you belong to the NEA or some similar union thug group.

Furthermore, what kind of history-related website can let July 11 pass without so much as a mention of the Burr-Hamilton Duel?