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One Man’s Meat is Another Man’s Poison, or, The Hidden Dangers of Tobacco

Posted By: Louise Foxcroft on December 23rd, 2013

The latest research on passive smoking says it may be less harmful than we think – but remember there are other, hidden dangers to tobacco. Once you’ve witnessed smoke billowing from your local butcher, you’ll begin to see my point. I was idly watching mine at his work when he leapt backwards from the block, beating his chest as if possessed. Smoke engulfed the smouldering butcher. His pipe, which he had just tucked conveniently into his breast pocket had leapt into life, catching on the ancient fibres of the tweed he wore beneath his apron. Having smothered the conflagration he went back to the meat. No word was spoken, no sound uttered, no eye met eye.

Smoking is dangerous for everyone. The prolific writer Sir Compton Mackenzie – author of Sublime Tobacco (1957) – knew this, for he, too, had witnessed a man set fire to himself. One Sydney Dark, deep in a Savile Club armchair, had dozed off with a lighted cigarette between his lips. Ethereal fumes began to rise from his mouth: that gasper had ignited his false teeth. Sir Compton heard Dark’s shout of dismay as he leapt up and hauled the denture out of his mouth. Highly flammable Vulcanite teeth, courtesy of the Goodyear Rubber Co., were then the Edward’s de nos jours.

Each year in Britain c120,000 people die of smoking related diseases. Who knows how many more are reduced to ashes from accidents such as these? And what of other lesser known dangers? In the 1890s, Members of the Religious Tract Society worried about the growth of female moustaches due to stimulation by constant movement of the lips whilst smoking. The monstrous regiment of women was forever adopting masculine habits despite it apparently consisting of utterly, brazenly female hussies; their potential for stubble didn’t seem to cramp their style either but, then, of course, tobacco was renowned as an aphrodisiac. It was a treatment for syphilis too, a disinfectant in plague-time, and a cure for toothache; the seeds and leaves were used to treat running wounds, scrophula and rabies (the limbs first being washed with urine). So there’s your up-side.

Still, even with all the good press, tobacco had been sporadically banned in seventeenth-century Europe, Russia, Iran, Japan, and India. James I of England and VI of Scotland wrote A Counterblast to Tobacco in 1604, damning smoking as ‘a branch of the sin of drunkenness, which is the root of all sins’. It was ‘loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs’. Then he taxed it and reaped the economic benefits. Sound familiar? Tobacco was a mixed blessing to Robert Burton who, in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), wrote of the ‘divine, rare, superexcellent tobacco, which goes far beyond all panaceas, potable gold, and philosopher’s stones … a sovereign remedy to all diseases’, but (and it’s a big but), ‘as it is commonly abused by most men … ‘tis a plague, a mischief, a violent purger of goods, lands, health, hellish, devilish, and damned tobacco, the ruin and overthrow of body and soul’.

Smoking seduces some and suffocates others. ‘Ods me’, wrote Ben Jonson, ‘I marvel what pleasure or felicity they have taking their roguish tobacco, it is good for nothing but to choke a man, and fill him full of smoke and embers’. ‘Filth of the mouth and fog of the mind’ is how a bitter Charles Lamb summed up the GREAT PLANT! in A Farewell to Tobacco (c1805) when banned from his sweet habit by a ‘sour physician’, he declared:

For thy sake, TOBACCO, I
Would do anything but die.

One man’s meat is another man’s poison. To return to butchers and smoking, and for true insight into understanding that intrinsic link, we must turn to Dr Thomas Beddoes of Bristol. In 1792 he wrote to Thomas Wedgewood about his pulmonary complaints – the very Wedgewood who had once kept a butcher’s shop so that the ‘affronts and disputes to which such a situation would expose him might act beneficially upon his increasing torpor’. Beddoes proposed introducing ‘cows into invalid’s bedrooms, that they might inhale the breath of the animals … the fumes would give a salutary stimulus to the surface of the lungs’, thus alleviating respiratory problems. It was a prescription which naturally gave umbrage to the Clifton lodging-house landladies. ‘Living with cows’, mused Beddoes, must be ‘the most delicious thing imaginable [surely] much better than living with a butcher’.