The Ashtray of History

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Flashbacks: "To Smoke or Not to Smoke?"
Articles from the 1860s to the 1990s take up the contentious question.

When the French National Library airbrushed the cigarette out of Jean-Paul Sartre’s hand in a 2005 poster of the iconic, chain-smoking philosopher, you knew it was only a matter of time. This February, France joins a growing number of jurisdictions that have implemented far-reaching smoke-free legislation—including such unusual suspects as Cuba (after Fidel Castro gave up cigars in 1986) and Hong Kong (which has temporarily exempted mah-jongg parlors and a few other places). But while the current antismoking phenomenon may appear unstoppable, a look back reveals that tobacco bans are hardly new—and rarely permanent. Here are some of the earlier smoke-free movements in history.

1624: On the logic that tobacco use prompts sneezing, which too closely resembles sexual ecstasy, Pope Urban VIII issues a worldwide smoking ban and threatens excommunication for those who smoke or take snuff in holy places. A century later, snuff-loving Pope Benedict XIII repeals all papal smoking bans, and in 1779, the Vatican opens its own tobacco factory.

1633: Sultan Murad IV prohibits smoking in the Ottoman Empire; as many as eighteen people a day are executed for breaking the law. Murad’s successor, Ibrahim the Mad, lifts the ban in 1647, and tobacco soon becomes an elite indulgence—joining coffee, wine, and opium, according to a historian living under Ibrahim’s reign, as one of the four “cushions on the sofa of pleasure.”

1634: Czar Michael of Russia bans smoking, promising even first-time offenders whippings, floggings, a slit nose, and a one-way trip to Siberia. By 1674, smokers are deemed criminals subject to the death penalty. Two years later, the smoking ban is lifted.

1646: The General Court of Massachusetts Bay prohibits citizens from smoking tobacco except when on a journey and at least five miles away from any town. The next year, the Colony of Connecticut restricts citizens to one smoke a day, “not in company with any other.” Though some statutes remain on the books for decades, enforcement diminishes, and by the early 1700s, New England is a major consumer and producer of tobacco.

1891: Angered by the shah’s generous tobacco concession to England, Iranians protest widely, and the Grand Ayatollah Haji Mirza Hasan Shirazi issues a fatwa banning Shiites from using or trading tobacco. The tensions spark the Tobacco Rebellion—the culmination of a long-standing confrontation between Iran’s shahs and its clergy over foreign influence. The following year, once the country’s business dealings with the Brits are revoked, Iran’s Shiites happily resume smoking.

1895: North Dakota bans the sale of cigarettes. Over the next twenty-six years, fourteen other statehouses, propelled by the national temperance movement, follow suit. Antismoking crusader Lucy Gaston announces her candidacy for president in 1920—the same year Warren G. Harding’s nomination is decided by Republican Party bosses in a “smoke-filled room.” By 1927, all smoke-free legislation—except that banning the sale of cigarettes to minors—is repealed.

1942: Adolf Hitler calls tobacco “the wrath of the Red Man against the White Man, vengeance for having been given hard liquor,” and directs one of the most aggressive antismoking campaigns in history, including heavy taxes and bans on smoking in many public places. The country’s antismoking movement loses most of its momentum after the Nuremberg trials, and by the mid-1950s, domestic consumption exceeds prewar levels.

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Abigail Cutler is a staff editor at The Atlantic.

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