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Summary: What did King James say about smoking?

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Not far from the North Dakota farm where I grew up was a barely-there town: a couple of grain elevators, a post office, a bar, and a general store. The store was a brick box, containing creaky floors, old and poorly stocked shelves, a few spotty fruits and vegetables, and a single dairy case. Nevertheless, I liked it, because it had a long counter of candy in front of the cash register, and Mother would let me pick out one dusty item to eat on the way home. Like many old stores of that era, the storekeeper’s office consisted of a balcony along the back of the store, from which he could look down over his domain.

The storekeeper was Earl Smith, a grumpy old cadaver of a man, tall and gaunt, his face a semitransparent membrane of wrinkled parchment over his skull. He never stopped smoking. A Camel hung from his lips as he cut your bread or meat, and as he made change and packed grocery bags, puffs of smoke would expel into your face.

My family strictly opposed smoking, not just because it was unhealthy and unhygienic, but as I interpreted what I heard my parents say, it was “a sin.”

I was four years old when I decided to reach out to Mr. Smith about his vice. As my mother shopped, I mounted the steps to the balcony where he was sitting at his desk going through receipts, a glowing butt hanging as ever from a corner of his mouth. I helpfully, but pointedly, informed him that if he smoked cigarettes he was going to get sick and die. And when he did, I was quite sure he wouldn’t get to go to heaven, because I happened to know that Jesus hates cigarettes.

Mr. Smith shouted down to my mother, “Hey, come and get your brat.” As my mother collected me he growled at her that what he smoked was none of anyone’s business but his, and she should shut her child up.

My mother was embarrassed, but when she told my father about it later, it sounded as though she was a little proud too.

the evolution of an addiction

Tobacco is mostly an American story. Columbus’s crewmates saw Native Americans inhaling the smoke created by a large-leafed plant, which seemed to leave them in a state of relaxation. Tobacco—Nicotiana ­tabacum—was only used ritually by most of the Native Americans for religious or treaty ceremonies and, occasionally, as an ingredient in herbal medicines. It remained for the European importers (Sir Walter Raleigh is generally given credit for popularizing it in Europe) to turn tobacco into a recreational drug. The southeastern part of North America was ideal for its cultivation, and tobacco soon became a major American export, which required slaves to work the plantations.

Tobacco’s early opposition came from Christians.

Not everyone welcomed tobacco. King James I of England (sponsor of the King James Bible) wrote a treatise opposing it, calling it a “custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse.” Still, it was defended by the physicians of the day who declared it health-improving. Health was an argument used well into the twentieth century, when popular magazine advertisements featured cigarette recommendations by celebrity doctors.

Tobacco turned out to be a difficult foe to oppose. It provided jobs and brought prosperity to the American South. In the mid-nineteenth century, one-third of American federal taxes came from tobacco, and other governments around the world taxed it similarly. It was still believed to be healthful by some, and innocuous by most. Cigarettes protruded from the lips of beautiful and handsome celebrities in magazines, movies, and television programs, and came to be regarded as a mark of sophistication.

Most important—though this was denied by tobacco marketers—nicotine, the active alkaloid in tobacco, is highly addictive. Smokers found it difficult to stop smoking, even if they wanted to.

Tobacco’s early opposition came from Christians. Church leaders argued that such an addictive habit was incompatible with a life dedicated to God. Seventh-day Adventist author Ellen White condemned it as early as 1848, and by 1861 her colleague J. N. Loughborough would write, “We do not take [into our church] any who use tobacco. . . . To take in those who are holding on to their sins and wrongs would be to encourage the things we are seeking to remedy.” Many religious leaders took up the crusade. The evangelist Billy Sunday became a particularly vociferous opponent of smoking.

Although doctors in many parts of the world saw an increase of disease in smokers, political pressure blocked serious research. A report by the United States surgeon general in 1964 tentatively (and against strong tobacco industry opposition) suggested a link between smoking and disease, but the theory wasn’t allowed to be confirmed for another 20 years. “Big Tobacco,” as its opponents called it, was ruthless in its promotion, even advertising to children using cartoon characters. The watershed moment for many consumers happened in 1994 when, before a congressional subcommittee in the United States House of Representatives, seven tobacco industry executives perjured themselves under oath, stating unequivocally what every tobacco user knew to be a lie: that tobacco was not addictive.

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