One evening in November 1492, as the wintry chill descended on a stretch of North American coastline, Christopher Columbus welcomed back two exhausted crewmen aboard his ship, the Santa Maria. Luis de Torres and Rodrigo de Jerrez had been sent ahead months earlier on a fool’s errand: to search for China in the deep forests of Cuba. On their journeys, the Spanish scouts had witnessed natives “drinking” the smoke emanating from the end of “a musket formed of paper”. De Jerrez had been curious enough to partake in this obscure ritual and, in doing so, became the first European to light up, cough and insist to sceptical friends that it was a pleasurable experience, honest. When he returned to his coastal home town of Ayamonte, he was swiftly sent to jail by the Spanish Inquisition; witnesses were so alarmed by the satanic clouds billowing from the corners of his mouth that a seven-year sentence was deemed necessary.
So began the white western world’s troubled relationship with the nicotiana tabacum, bane of health-care professionals and tutting parents who insist upon sunning their children in the beer garden of the Prince George on Saturday afternoons (despite knowing that it is commonly used as a smoking area, as the stacked ashtrays suggest). In the Beatles song “I’m So Tired”, John Lennon places the blame for cigarette addiction on Queen Elizabeth’s goombah, Sir Walter Raleigh, who is dismissed as a “stupid get”. It is, however, a curse that has deeper roots in America than in Britain.
Europeans may have “discovered” (or claimed) it when they “discovered” (or wreaked genocidal havoc on) the New World but the practice can be traced back as far as 5000BC, when it was used as part of ritual practices by ancient civilisations across North and South America. The plant has existed in its present form for millions of years: the oldest fossilised specimen, which dates back to the Pleistocene era, was unearthed in the Maranon river basin in north-eastern Peru last year.
The arguments against the evil habit are powerful and largely correct — in November, a World Health Organisation study found that 600,000 deaths are caused each year by passive smoking, of which 167,000 are children under the age of 15. Smoking reduces your life expectancy by eight to ten years; each puff of smoke contains 60 substances known to cause cancer. More than five million people die every year from smoking-related illnesses, which, in Britain alone, cost £5bn in public spending — about 6 per cent of the total NHS budget.
This week, councillors in New York State approved an extension of its public-smoking restrictions, prohibiting the yellow of tooth from puffing away on beaches, in parks and even in Times Square. In March 2003, the state introduced its controversial ban in the city’s 20,000 bars, clubs and and restaurants, overcoming resistance from anxious bar owners and the 1.3 million local smokers for whom they catered. Yet this latest extension of the law, passed by 36 votes to 12, seems to me to be an excessive move that will only encourage the anti-ban lobby.
According to the BBC, the new rules make it “an offence to smoke in any of the city’s 1,700 parks and along 14 miles of coastline”. The passive-smoking argument wielded so convincingly in 2003 cannot be applied to outdoor spaces; this gives the impression that the extension is driven by cosmetic, rather than health, concerns. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, after the vote, “This summer, New Yorkers who go to our parks and beaches for some fresh air and fun will be able to breathe even cleaner air and sit on a beach not littered with cigarette butts.” If litter is the problem, surely strengthening litter laws should be enough? Smokers have rights and should be allowed to damage themselves if they want to: the state shouldn’t be given more powers over people engaging in legal activities that harm no one but themselves.
The western history of ciggies started with de Jerrez’s persecution. In this light, perhaps this invasive development isn’t so surprising. Now, off for a smoke…
PS. Apologies for the Daily Mail-esque headline.