During the ‘Great Plague of London’, which was part of the same Eurasian pandemic that began with the ‘Black Death’ 400 years earlier, 100,000 people or 20% of the population of London died. Strangely, authorities are said to have kept fires burning night and day, in the hopes that the air would be cleansed. This usual tactic may have been inspired by a very common belief among the ordinary folk at the time. According to one A J Bell writing in about 1700:
“For personal disinfections nothing enjoyed such favour as tobacco; the belief in it was widespread, and even children were made to light up a reaf in pipes. Thomas Hearnes remembers one Tom Rogers telling him that when he was a scholar at Eton in the year that the great plague raged, all the boys smoked in school by order, and that he was never whipped so much in his life as he was one morning for not smoking. It was long afterwards a tradition that none who kept a tobacconist shop in London had the plague.”
This doesn’t seem to be such a crazy idea, given that a protective plague vaccine has recently been discovered in tobacco.Indeed, tobacco has been known and used for centuries for a wide range of medical problems.
In the year 1500, for example, a Portuguese explorer in Brazil, Pedro Alvarez Cabral, reported the use of the herb betum [tobacco] for treating ulcerated abscesses, fistulas, sores, inveterate polyps and many other ailments1. In 1529, a Spanish missionary priest, Bernadino de Sahagun, collected information from four Mexican physicians about use of tobacco for medicinal purposes. He recorded that breathing the odour of fresh green leaves of the plant relieved persistent headaches. For colds and catarrh, green or powdered leaves should be rubbed around inside the mouth. Diseases of glands in the neck could be cured by cutting out the root of the lesion and placing on it crushed tobacco plant hot and mixed with salt, on the same spot.2
In 1934 Fernando Ocaranza summed up the medicinal uses of tobacco in Mexico before 1519 as antidiarrhoeal, narcotic and emollient; he said that tobacco leaves were applied for the relief of pain, used in powdered form for the relief of catarrh and applied locally to heal wounds and burns.
The fact that tobacco, including the inhalation of tobacco leaf smoke, has been known and used for centuries as a cure for many diseases, including the plague, leaves us wondering how we ever got to the point today where smoking is so thoroughly demonised, in particular by governments. With NASA et al seemingly deeply concerned about ‘near earth’ comets and asteroids, the evidence for plague-bearing comets and asteroids having devastated humanity in the past, and the possibility that tobacco contains a vaccine for the plague, it seems a little disingenuous (not to mention suspicious) that smoking cigarettes is being touted as the fastest way to an early grave, despite the evidence to the contrary.
How indeed did we ever get to the point today where tobacco is so thoroughly demonised, given that once it was so highly prized?
It reminds me of a theory with which I occasionally toy: That all women are great beauties, but are not always regarded as such in their own time. So for example a great beauty of the 1950s and 1960s, like Brigitte Bardot, might have been regarded as rather plain a century of two earlier, and downright ugly a century or two later. And this is because standards of beauty are always changing. It’s the same with music: one year’s big hit is very seldom ever a big hit again.
And it’s the same with tobacco: at one time it is highly prized, and at another time it is reviled, and that’s just how the wheel of fortune turns. But in due course, the wheel of fortune will crank around another few degrees, and it will all change again.
Consider the fate of Carbon Dioxide in recent years. When I first heard of it 50 years ago, it was merely as a colourless, odourless, tasteless gas. Now it’s as demonised as tobacco (and perhaps even more so), and Boris Johnson’s supposedly Conservative government is dead set on achieving Net Zero Carbon. The climate alarmists want to rid the world of Carbon in the same way as the antismokers want to rid the world of tobacco.
But now, in just the past month or two, the wheel of fortune has clattered a few notches further round, and a brand new demon has materialised, in the form of the New Coronavirus, about which there is now a global panic, with shoppers fighting over toilet rolls.
And this is bad news for climate change alarmists:
This year was supposed to be a big one in the international fight against climate change. But the fast spreading new coronavirus disease, COVID-19, is posing a triple-threat to action that could derail the Paris Agreement effort to combat global warming, worried experts say.
And it’s probably just as bad news for the antismokers in Tobacco Control as it is for climate alarmists. But in the hit parade of popular demons, the new coronavirus disease has jumped straight into the Number One top spot, demoting all the other terrors. There can only ever be one single worst fear: all the rest must defer to it.
And this is normal. One great terror will always be followed by another great terror. And quite often the next great terror will be something that was caused by the response to the previous great terror. It seems entirely likely that the next great terror will be something that is being caused by the current coronavirus terror, and it will very likely be the economic crash that will be the consequence of locking down entire countries, and bankrupting all the businesses that formerly flourished in them. For example:
NBA to suspend season following Wednesday’s games
How many stadiums and theatres and restaurants and bars are closing their doors, never to re-open them again? Will their customers ever return? Will cruise liners like the Diamond Princess ever sail the seas again?
The war on tobacco will be gradually sidelined, just like the ‘climate emergency’, as brand new terrors emerge, each one demanding immediate action and priority funding, on the ever-turning wheel of fortune. They’ll gradually get buried. They’ll gradually be forgotten.
Speaking of hit parades, here’s Ricky Nelson’s 1958 first big hit: