The ‘Miracle’ Plant Once Hailed as a Cure for Cancer: Tobacco’s Rise … and Fall

We’ve come a long way from the first importation of nicotiana tabacum, through early praise and TV ad campaigns to its eventual unmasking as an addictive drug. Tony Lennox puts that in his pipe… and writes.

Tobacco

Aruggedly handsome man stands on the docks of Hong Kong harbour. He lights a pipe and a dozen pretty girls appear from nowhere, apparently drawn by the manly aroma of tobacco smoke.

A hefty minder holds the girls at bay as the pipe-smoker leaps aboard a speedboat. Glancing back, he gives a nod — and the minder allows a lone fan to slip through and join him. The pair speed off into the sunset. “A pipe does something for a man,” says the silky voiceover. “St Bruno does something more…”

Fifty years ago, it was not unusual to witness such advertising on prime-time television. And no-one would have batted an eyelid at the sexism either. In the intervening half-century, the world has witnessed astonishing social transformations, and as the Baby Boomers totter towards their dotage, it’s the little things which most vividly illustrate those changes.

Where have all the pipe-smokers gone?

Tobacco took Europe by storm in the early 1500s as explorers returned from the New World bearing cured leaves of nicotiana tabacum. It was named for French scholar and diplomat Jean Nicot de Villemain, who in 1560 sent tobacco and seeds to the queen of France, Catherine de Médicis. He promoted their medicinal use and believed that the smoke could protect against the plague and other illnesses — including, ironically, cancer. It was, he maintained, a medical miracle.

The supposedly beneficial effects of tobacco were not seriously questioned until the 1950s, when doctors began to link smoking with lung cancer. It was also established that nicotine was a highly addictive substance. At the time, an estimated eight out of 10 UK adults smoked. In following decades, tobacco came under attack, leading to bans on smoking in public indoor spaces in Britain by the early 2000s. Advertising tobacco products was also banned.

Cigarettes and cigars bore the brunt of the health offensive, while pipe smoking managed to maintain its comparatively benign status — for a time. Fictional characters from Sherlock Holmes to Gandalf the wizard had, after all, smoked pipes to aid their problem-solving abilities. The image was hard to shift. Pipe smoking was not a habit or an addiction, its devotees claimed; it was an art. Albert Einstein once said that puffing on a pipe “contributed to a somewhat calm and objective judgement in all human affairs”. Other great men known for their meditative nature were also fond of a pipe: Franklin D Roosevelt, JRR Tolkien, Bertrand Russell and Bing Crosby, among others.

Some have even suggested that the Labour leader of the 1960s, Harold Wilson, held on to his premiership during political turbulence because he was a pipe smoker. It gave him an air of contemplation and deliberation which resonated with the electorate. The British Pipe-Smokers’ Council named him Pipe Smoker of the Decade in 1976. The annual award, introduced in 1964, was presented to politicians and celebrities including Peter Cushing, Eric Morecambe, Magnus Magnusson, JB Priestly, Patrick Moore, Tony Benn and Ian Botham. It was finally snuffed out in 2004; the last celebrity winner was Stephen Fry.

There is a suggestion that certain Millennial hipsters are returning to the pipe — but in general society it is a thing of the past, a relic of a time when it was acceptable to suggest that if a man smoked a particular brand of tobacco, he’d be instantly surrounded by adoring women.

LP Hartley’s novel The Go-Between begins with the line: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Indeed they do: they smoke pipes, for a start.

By Tony Lennox


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