Smoke gets in your eyes

Forty years beyond the Surgeon General’s official warning that cigarette smoking is detrimental to the human body, a half-century past the first of many clinical trials establishing beyond a shadow of a doubt that smoking damages the lungs, no one really needs another book illuminating the evils of tobacco. There seems to be even less need for a book that questions, even furtively, the wisdom of such evidence. But here comes this annoyingly Anglo-centric book anyway, Iain Gately’s Tobacco: A Cultural History of How An Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization.

Between the title page and the book’s imprint, Gately struggles to identify and justify his work. It seems that after discovering that his odd collection of slanted historical data didn’t exactly constitute a “cultural history,” Gately hoped to intrigue readers instead with the add-on idea of seduction. Unfortunately this concept also falls limp.

Gately’s book reinforces the fact that religion, the promise of sex, star-power and profits are, in fact, seductive. But the book does not come close to revealing the seductive power of tobacco itself. Thinly veiled narrative extolling cigar and pipe smoking’s superiority to cigarette smoking, the book fails to answer its own rhetorical question: “Why Smoke?”

Nicotine—“ammonia-laced, freebased, asbestos filtered and genetically enhanced”—is the reason people smoke in the face of scientific fact and social stigma. Yet, the author assumes a posture of open disdain for the “helpless, addict-as-victim model” of cigarette junkies.

The book isn’t entirely without merit. Gately often exhibits a lively smart-mouth style, even if his correlation between tobacco and seduction seems strained. Still, it seems peculiar to support tobacco’s virtue with a reference to the exploitation of South African natives. According to Gately, “In 1652, the Dutch bought the Cape of Good Hope from them for a quantity of brandy and tobacco. It was the bargain of all time.” “On achieving puberty, a Hottentot boy smoked his first cigar while his mother bit off and ate his left testicle.” The upshot is offered by a French Jesuit, presumably traveling with the Dutch, who “observed: ‘they [the Hottentots] have some very odd and whimsical customs.’ ”

Tobacco’s discussion of brand consciousness, marketing fraud and media influence is shopworn in the places where it’s not obviously over-inflated, absurd or blatantly inconsistent. One of the most entertaining examples of the book’s conflicting rhetoric can be found in a story that Gately claims came from the India Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd., 2000. Reportedly, a group of 14 monkeys fight the evils of smoking by “marching in single file around the Sahara India Building—keeping a strict vigil on smokers. The moment they see anyone smoking they pounced on the person and deliver a couple of tight slaps. Only the other day a handful of monkeys surrounded a man who was smoking and took out all the cigarettes in his pocket. They [the monkeys] then started smoking themselves—much to the surprise of the onlookers.”

The non-smoking owner of Natal Zoological Gardens in South Africa wouldn’t have been surprised. He reportedly explained to Gately that the chimpanzees were taught how to smoke, and to inhale, by one of their own species who had previously worked in an American ice show.”

So much for brand identification and marketing strategies.

Overall, the book’s snotty British style becomes nearly amusing when you realize that the smugness emanates from someone who is unaware of the difference between Virginia and North Carolina and who confesses that an increase in cigarette rolling papers sales in the 1960s made British tobacco companies take “an excited interest in the branding, marketing, and packaging of hand-rolling tobacco.” Unfortunately, Gately’s seems not the type of mind that can conceive of a worthy definition of seduction, tobacco or otherwise.