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Eric Burns

The Smoke of the Gods
A Social History of Tobacco

Eric Burns

Eric Burns describes the buzz he created writing about the social history of tobacco in The Smoke of the Gods

Q: You did a book on alcohol, now one on tobacco. Why did you choose these topics to write "social histories"?
A: Because the topics are inherently fascinating in what they reveal about human nature, about the extent to which people will go to seek pleasure—even when that pleasure is almost certain to bring eventual pain. And about the extent to which other people will go to restrict the pleasures of their mates.

Q: The Smoke of the Gods opens with the quote, "Imagine yourself a Maya." How do you get into the mindset of the historical figures you write about?
A: I did not get into the mind of the Mayas. I simply read enough about them to understand their rituals and the reasons for them.

Q: You describe the Mayas blowing smoke up their…—let me rephrase this question—gave each other "smoke enemas." In retrospect, they probably did more harm than good. Did you come across any interesting facts to show how the Mayas benefited or suffered as a result of their smoking habits?
A: There is no way to know, at this late date, the extent to which the Mayas might have suffered physically as a result of their tobacco consumption. That they benefited spiritually, or believed they did, is unarguable.

Q: In The Spirits of America, alcoholic beverages were shown to be an important part of the electoral process in the colonial era. Tobacco, it seems from what you write in The Smoke of the Gods, was a critical component of the Jamestown settler's economy. What made the leaf such an important form of business?
A: Tobacco was the first New World product that turned a profit; i.e., that proved a desirable export. Had the leaf not been successfully cultivated when it was, it is likely that the British would have given up on Jamestown. It is possible that they would have given up, at least for a time, on the notion of colonizing that entire part of the New World. If this had happened, the United States would have been a far different country today, in ways no one could imagine.

Q: One of the "characters" from The Spirits of America—Benjamin Rush—returns in The Smoke of the Gods. Did you find much crossover in writing these books? Were alcohol and tobacco often linked together back in the Colonial era as they are now?
A: Only by a few reformers for one simple and obvious reason. The harmful effects of too much imbibing were apparent immediately. The harmful effects of too much smoking took a long time to manifest themselves. It is for this reason that tobacco reformers were not successful until the 20th century, when scientific and medical research was finally available to back them up.

Q: Once again, you have many interesting historical figures in your book. What can you say about Lucy Page Gaston, whom you dub "The Carrie Nation of Tobacco"?
A: Lucy Page Gaston grabbed my attention and refuse to let go. She is one of the most compelling, if least known, figures in all of American history: a woman so committed to her anti-smoking views that she had no life outside of the movement and, eventually, no life within it. Her passion became so overwhelming that even her allies became alienated and turned into enemies.

Q: There is much discussion about anti-smoking laws throughout history in the book, and this debate continues today. Why do you think these debates have gone on for so long?
A: Because they call into stark contrast two fundamental tenets of American thought: On the one hand, we believe in individual freedom. On the other, we believe in personal health and enrichment. The conflict between the two is inherent in tobacco.

Q: What did you find in your research for The Smoke of the Gods that amused you?
A: The bizarre medical beliefs about tobacco in the early days, when it was thought to be a cure for virtually all diseases. And the even more bizarre ways in which it was administered, including vaginally, to treat hysteria. Also amusing, although it perhaps fits under the heading of black humor more than conventional amusement, are the attempts made by the tobacco companies in the 20th century to continue to sell their products as medical evidence against those products became ever more conclusive. I was amused as well by the company that developed a filter so effective that virtually none of the taste of the tobacco got through, and so it was forced to come up with an "improved" filter that was more like a sieve, so that people could taste the tobacco and more effectively rot their lungs.

Q: Your chapter on the pulse of the nation leading up to the Surgeon General's warning about the links between smoking and cancer are marvelous. What do you remember about this announcement?
A: That it was the end of the argument about the health consequences of tobacco. From that point on, the tobacco industry could no longer pretend that cigarettes didn't kill. It had to develop other strategies, such as diversification, to survive.

Q: I am sure writing this book has made you never want to take up smoking. Do you think reading it will prompt anyone who does smoke quit?
A: Perhaps, but it seems to me unlikely. Given all that's known about the harmful effects of tobacco in the year 2006, anyone who still indulges is unlikely to undergo a change in behavior because of a mere book.


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