Sunday, September 26, 2021

Review of Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization by Iain Gately

The first book in our tobacco reading program is Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization by Iain Gately. 

Tobacco originated in South America in the Andes (present day Peru and Ecuador) and was probably first cultivated by humans as long as 7,000 years ago. It spread throughout the Americas and by the time Europeans made contact with the continent in the 15th century it was used by every group of Indians. Some highlights from the book:

  • The preferred implement for smoking tobacco [among South American Indians] was the cigar, which could be of prodigious size, especially those prepared by shamans, where examples of a meter or more in length are not uncommon. These were made from rolls of cured tobacco, often wrapped around a stick or the rib of a banana leaf.
  • Cigars were offered as tokens of welcome and friendship. They were smoked for relaxation and as self-administered medicine. They were employed to keep evil spirits and thunderstorms at bay. Such was their ubiquity in South American society that it is impossible to isolate a single or prime reason for smoking. The question "Why Smoke?" could have been answered effectively and truthfully with "Because we are humans."
  • Following tobacco's historical progress from its center of origin northwards into Central America, methods of consumption became less diverse, with smoking gaining at the expense of other tobacco habits. The earliest historical record of tobacco use in Central America resides among the artifacts of the Mayans, a sophisticated metropolitan civilization that flourished between about 2000 BC and AD 900. The Mayans farmed tobacco and considered its consumption to be not only a form of pleasure, but also a ritual of immense significance. At least two of their principal gods were habitual smokers.
  • Archaeological evidence, in the form of a primitive pipe, indicates that tobacco had reached the northern part of the American continent prior to 2500 BC. Its prehistorical use appears to have been near universal, from the swamps and deserts in the south, through the forests and across the great plains to the limits of tree growth in the north. With the exception of the frozen tundra of Alaska and Canada, wherever there were men, tobacco was consumed. Some tribes who practiced no other form of agriculture planted and cared for tobacco. The Tlingit Indians, an Alaskan tribe of hunter-gatherers, took a break from hunting and gathering to cultivate tobacco. Similarly some of the plains tribes, including the Blackfoot and the Crow, to whom growing vegetables was anathema, planted and nourished the weed.
  • Smoking was a defining habit of the diverse tribes and civilizations that occupied pre-Colombian North America. Every one of its cultures, living and vanished, used tobacco. In some cases, the only mementos civilizations have left to posterity have been their smoking apparatus. Not only was tobacco use common to all the inhabitants of North America, but they seem to have been unanimous in their selection of the pipe for its enjoyment.
  • This existing [cannabis] smoking tradition assisted tobacco's absorption into African culture. By the 1600s, every tribe the Europeans encountered on the continent were devotees of [tobacco]. Even the bushmen of the Kalahari desert, who scorned belongings other than their hunting bows and the ostrich eggs in which they transported water, took tobacco... The Africans' penchant for tobacco even shocked the English, whose consumption of [it] was considered amazing by fellow Europeans.
  • [In 1619] John Rolfe made the greatest ever innovation in the history of tobacco use by introducing the concept of brands. He named Virginia's product Orinoco, a word, at that time, suffused with the mysteries of Eldorado as described by Sir Walter Raleigh. Lighter in both color and flavor than its Spanish and Portuguese competitors, it burned with a unique and delicate fragrance... Brands per se had existed since Roman times, principally for medicines, weapons, and wines. However, the concept that identity could improve worth so perfectly fitted tobacco that branding was reinvented by the tobacco trade. Although Rolfe did no more than attach a name to Jamestown's only product, this small step raised it above the level of a commodity. A single evocative word ensured Virginian tobacco was remembered and preferred by the consumer. The English loved Orinoco, or the concept. By 1620 it commanded a premium over every other sort of tobacco.
  • James I, who must have felt that tobacco had only appeared in the British Isles to vex him, issued proclamations in 1620, 1621, and from his deathbed in 1624 forbidding the domestic production of tobacco. As the same time he legislated against tobacco smuggling, for the weed flooded into England over every unguarded inch of coastline. James's subjects took as much notice of his proclamations as they had of his Counterblaste. His son King Charles I was forced to issue a similar prohibition in 1633... Needless to say the best way Charles could think of protecting the health of his wanton subjects was by ensuring they could only smoke tobacco that had been properly taxed.
  • When the plague visited Holland, Dutch physicians put their faith in tobacco, and, if their accounts are to be believed, it was rewarded. Isbard von Diemerbroek, writing as the Black Death raged at Nijmegen in 1636, declared: "As I have proved by long experience, tobacco is the most effective means of avoiding the plague, providing the leaf is in good condition... One day, when I was visiting one of [its] victims, the reek of the pestilence seemed to overpower me, and I felt all the symptoms of infection - dizziness, nausea, fear: I cut my visit short and hurried home, where I smoked six or seven pipes of tobacco. I was myself once more, and able to go out again the same day.
  • [I]f European governments had any official view on tobacco, it was biased towards its potential as a source of income. Why allow religious sentiment to interfere with such a lucrative substance? Some European countries, including Austria, whose capital, Vienna, was besieged by the now smoking Ottomans in 1683, actually encouraged the nascent smoking habit. Emperor Leopold I introduced a national monopoly on tobacco's sale, with the aim of ensuring it was as widely available as possible throughout his realm.
  • Tobacco's influence over English learning extended beyond the classroom. It reacquired an association it had enjoyed among the Aztecs, whereby smoking was identified with meditation. As, to English eyes, smoke was drunk, it must therefore nourish something, but as it had no substance, this therefore could only be the spirit. Isaac Newton, the greatest scientist since Aristotle, smoked incessantly. Whether this habit contributed or not to his inventive genius is impossible to determine, for Newton smoked from his infancy until his death bed. 
  • Napoleon's personal tobacco habit was snuffing, the favorite pastime of the ancien regime. He took a kilo of snuff each week, the equivalent to a hundred-a-day cigarette habit. 
  • Gone were the silver mines of Peru, Mexico had finally broken free after years of lawlessness, taking Florida and California with it. Cuba, the 'Pearl of the Antilles' had to be humored lest it ran away as well. Cuban tobacco production flourished with the arrival of free trade. Havana cigars found a ready market in Europe, where it had been discovered that cigars kept their freshness better on a long sea voyage than bulk tobacco, resulting in a preference for Cuban cigars over cigars rolled in Spain with the same weed.
  • Despite the ubiquity of smoking in the wild west, and rising demand for Cuban cigars along the east coast, the principal tobacco habit in the United States was smokeless. For every man who lit a cigar or inhaled from the sacred calumet, ten more took their tobacco raw. [This is early 19th C America.]
  • As cigarettes progressed from being a foreign novelty to a common Parisian habit, they came to the attention of France's state tobacco monopoly, SEITA, which had survived, or been reinstated, through the course of a revolution, a republic, and a tyranny. Its then beneficiary, Louis Napoleon III, was happy to see Frenchmen smoking. "This vice brings in one hundred million francs in taxes every year," he remarked when asked to take action against the habit. "I will certainly forbid it at once - as soon as you can name a virtue that brings in as much revenue."
  • Victorian writers also formulated romantic and universal answers to the question of "Why smoke?" Charles Kingsley... following in the footsteps of other children's writers who celebrated the weed in print, presented tobacco's virtues thus: "A lone man's companion, a bachelor's friend, a hungry man's food, a sad man's cordial, a wakeful man's sleep, and a chilly man's fire."
  • Although cigarettes were the principal beneficiary of Hollywood,  other tobacco habits were also represented on screen in accordance with the prevailing conventions of literature. What a character smoked on film was a visual clue to their personality and background. The Victorian hierarchy of taste continued to be applied. A pipe smoker was a thinker, or a dependable member of the middle class. [...] Cigars were a celluloid power symbol...
  • The tendency of men in power to smoke cigars was noted and this habit too became aspirational. And so tobacco continued its triumphal march. By 1930, as Count Corti, a tobacco historian observed, most people in industrialized societies smoked: 'a glance at the statistics proves convincingly that the non-smokers are a feeble and ever dwindling minority. The hopeless nature of their struggle becomes plain when we remember that all countries, whatever their form of government, now encourage and facilitate the passion for smoking in every conceivable way, merely for the sake of the revenue which it produces.
  • [By the 1970s...] the smoking debate had arrived at a philosophical crossroads. Both the British and American governments were holding back from taking further measures against their subjects and citizens. They had been warned, regulated, and taxed. It would be a breach of the social contract to impose further on individual rights. Cigarettes killed people, but so did cars, and, for that matter, eating too much. The fundamental liberal principle of democratic government - that state intervention should be limited to occasions when an individual's behavior might damage others, and not if they only risked themselves - stood firm in the Anglo-Saxon world.

As a re-nicotinization investor, the ubiquity of tobacco usage - enjoyed in some form by every human society where it has ever been introduced - is very reassuring. This universality surpasses other widely-desired but not quite ubiquitous intoxicants like ethanol and cannabis. The human body is wired to enjoy nicotine, and that is not going to change on our investing time frame. It's Lindy.  

A key theme of this book is the ever-swinging pendulum in developed countries from moral panic over tobacco to acceptance. Some of these changes have coincided with changes in fashion in the form of usage of nicotine: snuffing, smoking (cigars/pipes/cigarettes), or chewing.

Because the cost of goods for tobacco products is so low and the enjoyment (consumer surplus) is so high, a reasonable retail price can provide room for quite high tax revenue to governments while still providing an attractive profit margin to a manufacturer and a retailer. Because the capital reinvestment requirement of tobacco or nicotine businesses is low, but the regulatory burden is high and there are powerful brand effects (social proof, usage displayed in public) these businesses can enjoy a moat and have high margins and very high return on capital.

Naive linear extrapolation predicted that cigarettes were doomed because usage dropped from 21% of adults in 2005 to 14% in 2019. (And only 8% of 18-24 year olds.) But notice that huge numbers of high school students used tobacco products when e-cigarettes became widely available. Nothing about human biology has changed that would make people not want to use nicotine. The desire is there but it has been suppressed because of cigarettes and lung cancer. 

There are now far safer ways of consuming nicotine than cigarettes - vaping and oral nicotine products. It would make all the sense in the world if nicotine made a huge resurgence due to two reinforcing factors coinciding at the same time: a reversal of the moral panic pendulum plus a change in fashion of usage. 

Imagine if instead of "dying," big tobacco experienced say 50% revenue growth over the next decade as nicotine consumption went from 14% back to 21% of the population. All that would be needed would be re-nicotinization, which is a Lindy bet, and regulatory capture of the FDA by big tobacco. The investment return could be spectacular given that the increased profit would likely be accompanied by multiple expansion.


P.S. As part of our re-nicotinization research, we may at some point write a blog post on the costs vs benefits of using nicotine. Potentially beneficial aspects of nicotine that you can find via anecdote or actual research are: cognitive enhancer / nootropic, energy booster, appetite suppressant, anti-depressant / mood enhancer, sociability enhancer, "protective action against nigrostriatal damage" (Parkinson’s disease), and competition with coronavirus for ACE2 receptors. Potentially harmful aspects of nicotine are vasoconstriction, tachycardia / other cardiovascular effects, and up-regulation of ACE2 receptor expression (offsetting factor for coronavirus risk risk). Another aspect to consider would be whether tolerance / adaptation / receptor up-regulation mean that there is truly a net benefit from consuming nicotine. (There is the same question regarding net benefit given tolerance and adaptation with caffeine.)

And in relation to the enhancing qualities, we cannot help but notice another theme which we will call, "great tobacco users in history." This book mentioned Newton, Napoleon, Darwin, and Edison, but we are seeing this in modern times as well.


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this book, and never realized Sir Walter Raleigh had his head loped off.

Anonymous said...

Walter Raleigh was a based, chad smoker and Queen Elizabeth's successor James I was a cringe anti-smoker.