Royal insights on smoking - BMJ
March 22, 2010
and their heirs are not always noted for their rational medical advice.
But James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England in 1603,
certainly earnt his nickname as "the wisest fool in Christendom" for
his visionary insights into smoking.
Published anonymously in
1604 but immediately credited to the king, A Counterblaste to Tobacco
flew in the face of prevailing medical opinion by outlining some of the
chief health risks of smoking more than three centuries before
scientists made the connection. Possibly the
first official antismoking campaign, the royal pamphlet highlighted
cost and passive smoking as two of the most powerful arguments against
tobacco, while it lamented that addiction, peer pressure, and fashion
were among the most difficult obstacles to overcome.
into Europe in the previous century, tobacco had already gained an
enthusiastic following with the zealous encouragement of the medical
establishment. The Spanish physician Nicolas Monardes listed 36
illnesses in 1571 that smoking either cured or prevented, including
toothache, halitosis, and cancer. Since the plant had arrived from
North America at the same time as syphilis, tobacco was frequently
prescribed, with the scientific logic of the age, as an antidote to the
James I was having none of it. Employing the
xenophobia he knew was one of his strongest propaganda weapons, he
argued that just as the English disdained the customs of the French and
Spanish so they should n ot mimic
the "barbarous and beastly maners of the wilde, godlesse, and slavish
with impeccable rationality the king speedily dismissed medical claims
that tobacco had cured illnesses ranging from gout to ague. Just
because a sick man got better after smoking did not prove that tobacco
caused his recovery, he argued. This was like an "olde harlot"
attributing her long life to "harlotrie." The "natural course" of a
disease and the "apprehension and conceit of the patient" were more
likely to have effected the cure, he explained.
The habit of
smoking enslaved men who could no longer "forebear the same," cost up
to "foure hundred pounds a yeere," and pervaded public places with its
"filthy smoke and stinke," the king argued.
Furthermore, the custom was so prevalent that people felt obliged to smoke rather than seem "peevish and no good company" or, li
who ate garlic, so as not to be disgusted by the smell of it on others.
to a crescendo, James I condemned tobacco as a "custome lothsome to the
eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, daungerous to the
Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the
horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomlesse." He should have
saved his breath. Medical professionals would blithely advocate smoking
for health for the next 350 years.
Sources: Anon (James I), A
Counterblaste to Tobacco, London, 1604; SL Gilman, X Zhou, eds, Smoke:
A Global History of Smoking, London: Reaktion, 2004.
BMJ 2010;340:c1408 Published 11 March 2010