Why do smart people smoke? Tobacco, a brief history

This month I’m in Japan and I’ve taken up smoking the pipe. Partly, I enjoy the taste and the ritual. I’ve never gotten into smoking cigarettes and don’t plan to start. And while I understand smoking can be addictive, I’ve not experienced it yet.

If you’ve followed Creativindie for awhile, you’ll know I’m a fan for marijuana for creativity and productivity boosting. But I also travel full-time, and while recreational marijuana is legal in my home state of Oregon, it can mean a jail sentence in many other countries.

The advantage of tobacco is that it’s a global habit; easy to buy and use anywhere.
But does it do any good? The benefits would have to outweigh the potential health risks. I’m definitely not recommending tobacco use, but I do want to post an open-minded review and case study.

Let’s start with a historical overview

Tobacco was used extensively in the Americas, going back thousands of years; it had spiritual connotations, and was used in vision quests and ceremonies. Later, it also became used for quiet reflection and relaxation.

Once it was discovered by Europeans, it became the most commercial product of all time. At first it was lauded as a healthy practice; and even when the health risks became obvious, use continued despite the warnings. What is it about tobacco that has made it so popular?


The opening speech of Moliere’s Don Juan explains:

“There is nothing like tobacco. It’s the passion of the virtuous man and whoever lives without tobacco isn’t worthy of living. Not only does it purge the human brain, but it also instructs the soul in virtue and one learns from it how to be a virtuous man. Haven’t you noticed how well one treats another after taking it. . . tobacco inspires feelings, honor and virtue in all those who take it.”

In Robert Burton’s Antatomy of Melancholy (1621), the author claims:

Tobacco, divine, rare superexcellent tobacco, which goes far beyond all panaceas, potable gold and philosopher’s stones, a sovereign remedy to all diseases.

Early reports agreed that it had benign effects on the human brain, which it cleansed and invigorated. It also delayed hunger and thirst, restored strength and refreshed spirits.

Later it became associated with slow, careful speech and gave the impression of education and knowledge:

The pipe, with solemn interposing puff,
Makes half a sentence at a time enough;
The dozing sages drop the drowsy strain,
Then pause, and puff—and speak, and pause again.

– William Cowper, Conversation (1782),

Tobacco was favored among Chinese poets, to assist the act of composition. According to an old Chinese saying, “this life is better than the immortals when you smoke tobacco after every meal.” In Africa, a local myth claimed, “whenever your heart rises in wrath or sinks in sorrow, drink the smoke, and peace and happiness will reign in it again.”

In the Ottoman empire, after a few decades of cruel punishment (the Sultan would go undercover asking to bum cigarettes, and then pour molten metal down the throats of those who practiced the habit) tobacco joined coffee, wine and opium as one of the four cushions on the divan of pleasure.

In regards to American heritage, tobacco supplied the cause and the victory in the United States War of Independence; French support was bought with five million pounds of weed from Ben Franklin. According to author Iain Gately in his cultural history:

Americans spoke English because of tobacco; they smoked before they learned to make apple pie; the country’s oldest communities had been founded to grow the weed, and its independence had been bought with it.

Perhaps due to its ubiquity, it isn’t difficult to find champions and supporters among history’s most successful people.

Napoleon took a kilo of snuff a week.

Baudelaire writes that tobacco allays “heart and mind, and for tonight all injuries are healed.”

Charles Darwin used snuff during working hours, and smoked to relax in the evening. When he tried to give it up for a month, he described himself as “quite lethargic, stupid and melancholy.”

Sherlock Holmes would smoke to solve crimes. In one book, presented with a challenging case, Watson asks him what he’s going to do. 

“To smoke,” Holmes says, “it is quite a three pipe problem.”

Einstein said “I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs.”

Edison, a compulsive chewer, said “tobacco acts as a good stimulant upon anyone engaged in laborious brain work.”

Freud smoked up to 20 cigars a day, and described tobacco as a “sword and buckler in the battle of life.”

The main two benefits of Tobacco use

Already we can notice some patterns. On the one hand, tobacco makes you feel good. It removes doubt, anxiety, fear and pain. In the centuries before a pharmaceutical painkiller, it was a panacea. As Edward Bulwer Lytton wrote in 1858:

“He who doth not smoke hath either known no great griefs, or refuseth himself the softest consolation, next to that which comes from heaven.”

The other advantage is for creative thinking. It may seem strange that a substance can be both relaxing and sharpen productivity, but especially with writing, the challenge isn’t necessarily in critical, logical thinking – it’s the ability to relax, get into “the flow” and let word associations and ideas come naturally.

(I much prefer marijuana in this regard, but tobacco helps a little too: if only to decrease anxiety and worry, and feel a warm confidence and enjoyment of your writing ritual).

In 1827, a chemist named John Walker invented the friction match to assist smokers; it was copied and marketed by a Londoner under the brand “Lucifer.” Together with automated cigarette rolling machines, companies were creating such a surplus that they had to begin shifting to foreign markets.

They also focused on marketing: The 1951 show I Love Lucy was sponsored by Philip Morris, whose character smoked a prodigious amount of cigarettes.

 

WHY do people smoke?

Most researchers believe that the active, feel-good, brain-boosting element in tobacco is nicotine. Nicotine boosts dopamine and serotonin in the brain. It’s also, on its own, one of the cleanest stimulants known to man – in some studies no more dangerous than caffeine.

It may even have positive benefits:

Nicotine, by virtue of its short-term actions on the cholinergic system, has positive effects on certain cognitive domains including working memory and executive function and may be, under certain conditions, neuroprotective. (PubMed)

Studies have even found an inverse relationship between nicotine and Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Attempts to get people addicted to ONLY nicotine, without the hundreds of additional substances found in tobacco smoke, have been unsuccessful.

Tobacco use, without smoking

For centuries, smoking tobacco has been the most convenient way to consume tobacco, but it isn’t any more. Several new and recent technologies have exciting applications: they are generally meant to help people quit smoking or replace the habit with something less damaging.

Here are a few I’ve tried.

Pipe smoking

Some studies have shown pipe smokers of natural tobacco who don’t inhale actually live longer than non-smokers (but, long term pipe smokers can develop cancers, especially of the throat and mouth). Studies put it at around 70% safer than smoking cigarettes.

However, I will say I enjoy the ritual of pipe smoking, and I also prefer it to cigarettes because I can buy natural, organic tobacco, put a pinch into my pipe, and light it up.

How does it make you feel. This is harder to answer. It’s subtle; I don’t feel the high of marijuana or the creative energy. I just feel slightly better. I’m less aware of aches and pains, I believe I’m more task oriented and it staves off both exhaustion and depression/negative thinking.

Juuling (nicotine salts)

In Taiwan I bought a vape pen that’s similar to a JUUL – which has grown to a 15 billion dollar company in only a few short years. It’s extremely convenient, and you can just charge the device and refill the pod with liquid every few weeks.

Although long-term studies obviously haven’t been conducted, most current studies show a nearly 95% decrease in the carcinogenic pollutants found in cigarette smoke. (Most of the controversy comes from the vact that these vape pens have candy-flavors that appeal to children).

Interestingly, even after using mine consistently for several months, I never feel the urge or need to smoke it. If anything, it’s a very light stimulus that lasts 20 minutes or so.

Snuff / Snus

Snuff is ground, flavored tobacco that you snort, or alternatively, place under your lip like chewing tobacco.
1. snort and sneezing it is gross.
2. chewing and spitting it is gross.

However, it also comes in small packages you can just place under your lip and dispose of afterwards. The one I found is called “Snus” and comes from Sweden. Interestingly, some US based tobacco companies also tried producing their own variety, but they introduce a lot more foreign chemicals in the process.

Also interestingly, all tobacco products for oral use, except those intended to be smoked or chewed, have been banned in the EU since 1992: except in Sweden, who refused to join without this exception.

According to these two doctors snusers eliminate about 98% of the health risks associated with smoking.

I’ve tried nicotine gum and mints in the past but don’t like either (not a gum chewer; the hints are too harsh and burn my stomach). I’ve also tried nicotine patches, but they make me wired and dizzy.

The snus is very discreet, easy to use, and I really like the salty/sweet taste. Probably not a habit I’ll pick up, but interesting.

Heat don’t burn products

I’m in Japan right now and there’s a ton of advertising and sponsored placement for heat don’t burn products. I didn’t even understand what they were at first, because such products only became available for sale in the USA in 2019.

Vaping with nicotine liquid vapes is still illegal, but some tobacco companies have embraced the vaping trend with new devices that “heat” the cigarettes enough to release the vapor, without combustion or fire – this removes roughly have the carcinogens.

I’m not a smoker, so I can’t compare them to “real” cigarettes. My experiences so far is mixed. I bought an Iqos 3 by Philip Morris. You stick little half-cigarettes into a plastic tube and use it like a cigar. But you need to put it back in the charging case after each use, which only lasts a few minutes.

It’s not as satisfying as raw tobacco in a pipe, but because you inhale like a cigarette, it hits much harder. As a non-smoker, I usually feel pretty dizzy. (Possibly because, racing against the short battery, I’m trying to smoke it all quickly).

Benefits last 30 minutes, but the first 10 I couldn’t really do anything.

I will say, I really like the smell, especially of the yellow Heet flavor. I can see it becoming a relaxing ritual, but the convenience and use of the device is off-putting, I much prefer real tobacco in a pipe; plus, I don’t at all trust the tobacco companies which make the products – because I’m sure they’re adding stuff – and I’d rather just buy pure, raw tobacco myself.

However, interestingly, after using for a few days I can feel sometimes the “yearning” to smoke another one, even thinking about it all day, waiting for the right moment. Obviously, that’s dangerous, and I don’t feel it at all when using the nicotine vape or pipe, so I’ll be especially careful.

There’s no smoke, so it’s pretty convenient and as I mentioned, as an alternative smoking that could actually help people quit (virtually none of the other quit-smoking products on the market have been proven effective) I think this is a smart move, and the technology fascinates me. The main thing is, I don’t really feel any noticeable benefits, so why do it if it’s not enhancing my life or workflow – especially if the potential for addiction is there.

 

Cigarettes

Just for comparison, I bought a package of Natural American Spirit cigarettes and lit one up. I chose this brand specifically because it’s supposed to have the most nicotine. Or, more specifically, it contains more “free-base” nicotine, which increases the potency without increasing the dose (in 1994, ABC ran a report accusing Philip Morris of spiking its cigarettes with extra nicotine to hook users; Philip Morris denied the charge and sued ABC for defamation. Actually, they were using the same amount of nicotine, but it had been chemically altered to be less stable and more easily absorbed.

American Spirit has been sued for false advertising, because it uses the terms “natural” and “additive free” on its packaging – their cigarettes are not healthier or more natural, and contain much more free-base nicotine than competing brands. (36 percent, compared with 9.6 percent in a Marlboro and 2.7 percent in a Camel.)

As a non-smoker… I was able to enjoy the cigarette on a leisurely ten minute walk. I have a nice, subtle buzz but no dizziness (like I do with the Iqos 3). It was easier to hold and puff on the cigarette, my mouth has a slight tingling and my lungs feel warm and spicy. I was casually smoking and didn’t inhale all that much or hold the smoke in. The aftertaste is pleasing. 

Then I wrote 1000 words of fiction. Seemed to go pretty well. The problem of course is I have no intention of becoming a smoker; even though it’s super convenient to buy a pack and a lighter anywhere; and it’s easier to use and more pleasing than the iqos 3 device. Downside: even after an hour, I can still smell the cigarette.

 

 

Conclusions:

There are plenty of other stimulants I prefer, like espresso or matcha tea (green tea is OK in large doses, matcha is strong and more balanced than coffee, which can give me shakiness or muscle cramping.)

I’m quite fond of my vape-pen and will probably keep using it; I’m increasingly found of my pipe as well, and it’s an easy habit to use anywhere. For creative types who already deal with depression or anxiety, tobacco is something that can regulate brain chemicals and give you a positive-mood-boost.

Marijuana, in contrast, is so much better – but only if you’re using stimulating indicas, and only for certain endevours (drafting, but not editing, for example).

*** not meant as medical advice. If you deal with anxiety and depression, strongly recommend seeing a doctor and getting a low-dose anti-depressant to regulate your mood; or try St. John’s Wort instead for long-term mood balancing. ***

About Derek Murphy

Derek Murphy is a book editor turned book designer with a Ph.D. in Literature. He's been featured on CNN and spoken at dozens of writing conferences around the world. These days he mostly writes young adult fantasy and science fiction, while helping authors write and publish bestselling books. FREE GUIDE: Sell your work without selling out.