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
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
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
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.