18 May 2017

Did God make “tobacco” exclusively for smoking?

by Jonathan Ekene Ifeanyi
In 1950, after accepting a life membership to the Montreal Pipe Smokers Club, Einstein said he believed "that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs". (See: The Incredible Life and Times of Albert Einstein).
Some days ago, Father Paul Kramer, one of my most respected priests in these darkest of times, posted the following quotes:
“I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgement in all human affairs.” -Albert Einstein, 1950


“The late Fr. Gregor Hesse S.T.D.: "God made tobacco to be smoked." - sententia certa (!) He was right!”

Gene Paci, Father Kramer’s FB friend, asked: “Some argue this is a sin, could you provide sources to settle this debate?”

Father Kramer: What is their argument?

Gene Paci: That it is a sin to smoke, since it is harmful to the body, causing premature death.

Father Kramer: My mentor, Klemens Vansteenkiste OP, smoked his cigars & pipes (and sipped wine) to the age of 95.

Gene Paci: I agree with you, but there are a lot of Catholics saying this these days, that it's a sin. It would be good to set the record straight on this.

Father Kramer Salesian priests in mission territories have always had the permission to smoke, even many decades ago when they had the strict "no smoking" rules for the non-missionaries.

Bobby Lawitzke: What about herb? God made that too! Sinful or not?

Father Kramer: The rule on intoxicants is that it is a grave sin to consume the substance in question to the point of losing the use of reason. Impairment to a lesser degree would be a venial sin.

Father Kramer: Small doses would not be sinful.

Edward A. Hara: Unfortunately, God made the liver to filter out toxins, and with my liver being compromised by HEP C, a nice pipe of good tobaccy is simply a no-go.

Father Kramer: I had a serious liver condition in 1974, again in 1996, and in 2006. Good alternative medicine saved me.

Father Kramer: Contaminated water is the worst danger to the liver. There are also many more dangerous factors.

Driton Palushaj: It's bad for your health.

Father Kramer: My mentor, Klemens Vansteenkiste OP, smoked his cigars & pipes (and sipped wine) to the age of 95.

Driton Palushaj: Then why do medical doctors say it's bad for you Father?
Is it because of chemicals that they put in or is it bad all together?

Phyllis Haig: Meant to tell you earlier that you remind me of Gregor in these pics - your expression & the pipe 

Father Kramer: We spent so many evenings in his room in Rome, smoking our pipes, sipping on wine, and munching on sausage. He always had such good music for us to listen to!

Deborah Canale: My father smoked a pipe and so does my son.

Joan Campbell: Exactly Fr. Heard St Pade Pio smoked. All things in moderation of course. What the heck else did God put tobacco here for? It is not a weed!

Therese Derby: No he didn't smoke. He hated it! St. Padre Pio had snuff back then they thought it was good for asthma! Although sometimes you smell tobacco as a sign from him.

Joe Cox: Father I have heard the accusation that smoking is a sin...I don’t agree but what do you say?

Father Kramer: If anyone says smoking is a sin, anathema sit. ...Fr. Giuseppe Sarto was a (canonized) smoker.

One Penelope Smith responded: “...Not as a rule I think, based on my observations. You like tasty things, meaty, cheesy things, burgers, pizza, Chinese, lots of things. The palate. Nothing wrong with that. But something will get you, you can be sure. Some organic weak point eventually gives. Kaput. It's called mortality. Dust thou art... Some who are expected to live long keel young. Some who nobody would place a bet on live into deep old age. Even vegetarians and doctors drop dead. ...You and I just have appetites for different things. Mine helps me to enjoy some relaxing peace which contributes to well being, yours helps you to enjoy taste and feel sated. The little pleasures...of life. - Ha. Well, here's to your health!...”

Father Kramer: Penelope Smith: If you want your comments to be tolerated on my page, you will need to be respectful towards myself and any other priests who post comments -- so leave your holier-than-thou pharisaism behind. Quoting Einstein on pipe smoking doesn't make him my "mentor", (and if you think it does, then you are mentally impaired). My mentors were: Klemens Vansteenkiste OP, Athanan De Vos OP, Benedikt Lemeer OP, Ambrosius Eßer OP.

I read all this and felt that I too should respond, no matter how briefly, and here is my own response:

"Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable illness and death in the United States. It causes many different cancers as well as chronic lung diseases such as emphysema and bronchitis, heart disease, pregnancy-related problems, and many other serious health problems", says the article Tobacco Facts and Figures.  "German scientists identified a link between smoking and lung cancer in the late 1920s, leading to the first anti-smoking campaign in modern history, albeit one truncated by the collapse of Nazi Germany at the end of World War II," says Wikipedia. "In 1950, British researchers demonstrated a clear relationship between smoking and cancer. Evidence continued to mount in the 1980s, which prompted political action against the practice. Rates of consumption since 1965 in the developed world have either peaked or declined. However, they continue to climb in the developing world."

First of all, Gene Paci asked: “Some argue this is a sin, could you provide sources to settle this debate?” Father Kramer didn’t really answer this question, rather we read the following:

Father Kramer: What is their argument?

Gene Paci: That it is a sin to smoke, since it is harmful to the body, causing premature death.

Father Kramer: My mentor, Klemens Vansteenkiste OP, smoked his cigars & pipes (and sipped wine) to the age of 95.

Well, I'm not here to argue against wine but smoking, which is clearly dangerous to the health. To say that Klemens Vansteenkiste “smoked his cigars & pipes (and sipped wine) to the age of 95” doesn’t in any way answer the questions: “Is it bad to smoke? Does it cause premature death?”—neither does the statement that “Salesian priests in mission territories have always had the permission to smoke, even many decades ago when they had the strict "no smoking" rules for the non-missionaries.” 

If smoking is something good, something normal, why then must the Salesian priests be “permitted” before they could smoke? And why having the “no smoking rules” in the first place?

Again, to Father’s assertion that “Klemens Vansteenkiste OP, smoked his cigars & pipes (and sipped wine) to the age of 95,” I ask: Did he live to the age of 95 because he smoked? The simple truth is that only God can say who will live long and who will not, and when He says that you will live long, not even your addiction to smoking (or anything under the planet) can stop that.  As Smith rightly puts it, “Some who are expected to live long keel young. Some who nobody would place a bet on live into deep old age. Even vegetarians and doctors drop dead.” I my view, what can be “sinful” about smoking is to know that it can actually kill and yet keeps smoking it, FULL STOP.

Also, to say that Giuseppe Sarto was “a canonised smoker” is to give a wrong impression. After all when someone is canonised a saint, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the person in question was just spotless all his or her life but simply that he or she lived an exemplary life in one area of life or the other—he or she did one ordinary thing or the other extraordinarily. Was Giuseppe Sarto canonised a saint just because he was a perfect smoker? Because he smoked extraordinarily? If so, I make bold to declare anathema sit—equally—to whoever did that “canonisation”.  

Also, Einstein simply deserves no response, but Fr. Hesse. If he says “God made tobacco to be smoked,” he should also tell us where and when he met God and was told that. When did God tell him that He “made tobacco to be smoked”? I’m asking because I know that apart from smoking there are simply many medicinal uses of "tobacco". It had a number of uses as medicine. As a pain killer, for instance, it was used for earache and toothache and occasionally as a poultice. Historically "tobacco" was used both for its pleasurable effect and especially for the treatment of various ills. Hence it makes sense to argue that God made “tobacco” for this medicinal purposes than—just to justify his habit of smoking!—arguing that He “made it to be smoked”. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, smoking is just a habit—in fact a bad one—which people develop for themselves. Hence Vaughan, in 1612, although declaring that ‘tobacco well dried, and taken in a cleane Pipe fasting, in a moist morning, during the Spring or Autumne, cureth the megrim, the toothache, obstructions proceeding of cold and helpeth the fits of the mother’, equally warned that it could do much harm when abused. As far as I’m concerned, one of such abuses of the plant is the smoking itself. Arguing that “God made tobacco to be smoked” is just as “sound” as arguing that God is responsible for all evils in the world just because He is the creator of Adam and Even (who committed original sin and hence brought evil to the rest of mankind!).

Interestingly, the name tobacco, as we shall learn from the article below, was originally applied to the “tobacco plant” in error. Tobacco “referred to the cane pipe, called a tabaco or tavaco, with two branches for the nostrils, which was used by the Native Americans for sniffing tobacco smoke. The tobacco itself was variously called petum, betum, cogioba, cohobba, quauhyetl, picietl or yietl, and these names sometimes appeared later in herbals or pharmacopoeias.” I think Father Hesse should have taken time to learn this before declaring that “God made the tobacco to be smoked” (meaning that “God made the cane pipe to be smoked”, really!).

Why even do people smoke? In a study conducted by Jennifer O'Loughlin and colleagues, first smoking experiences of seventh-grade students were studied. They found out that the most common factor leading students to smoke is just "cigarette advertisement"! Smoking by parents, siblings and friends also encourage students to smoke, they discovered. 

I personally agree with Smith that Father Kramer loves talking about how he enjoys eating either this delicious food or that, this “meaty, cheesy things, burgers, pizza, Chinese, lots of things.” But what is bad about that? Father Kramer is one of the most sincere persons I’ve ever encountered, and I believe, that many must have equally encountered. He is good at using such talks to calm the nerves of his friends and followers or to divert their attention—at least for a time!—from the innumerable atrocities of “Pope” Francis and his gang—you know, a sort of comic relief! And that’s good. But—like Smith—sometimes I also do wonder: Can’t he spend a similar time to also talk about the need to fast especially at this critical time? Must we always talk about eating this or that all the time? And now about smoking! So YES, I think Smith is also right on that point, though he doesn’t sound respectful.  

Finally, to Joan Campbell who said that “St Pade Pio smoked”, I respond with the following quote from the article Pio, Something Smells! :

“Bilocation and Odor of Sanctity. The phenomenon of bilocation is one of the most remarkable gifts attributed to Padre Pio. His appearances on various of the continents are attested by numerous eye witnesses, who either saw him or smelled the odors characteristically associated with his presence, described by some as roses and by others as tobacco. The phenomenon of odor (sometimes called the odor of sanctity) is itself well established in Padre Pio's case. The odor was especially strong from the blood coming from his wounds. Investigation showed that he used absolutely no fragrances or anything that could produce these odors. The odors often occurred when people called upon his intercession in prayer and continue to this day. Among the most remarkable of the documented cases of bilocation was the Padre's appearance in the air over San Giovanni Rotondo during World War II. While southern Italy remained in Nazi hands American bombers were given the job of attacking the city of San Giovanni Rotondo. However, when they appeared over the city and prepared to unload their munitions a brown-robed friar appeared before their aircraft. All attempts to release the bombs failed. In this way Padre Pio kept his promise to the citizens that their town would be spared. Later on, when an American airbase was established at Foggia a few miles away, one of the pilots of this incident visited the friary and found to his surprise the little friar he had seen in the air that day over San Giovanni. As to how Padre Pio with God's help accomplished such feats, the closest he ever came to an explanation of bilocation was to say that it occurred "by an extension of his personality."” (Italics emphasis mine).

The article below, on the medicinal uses of tobacco in history, written in 2004 by Anne Charlton, a professor emeritus, of the School of Epidemiology and Health Sciences, University of Manchester, should be studied carefully. Note: I agree with Charlton’s conclusion that “we should set aside the prejudices generated by the ill-effects of tobacco smoking and examine the leaves systematically for substances of therapeutic value.” My main objection to Father’s post is that it makes sense to argue that God made the “tobacco” for man because of its medicinal purposes (i.e. these substances of “therapeutic value” contained by the leaves) and not because He wants it exclusively to be smoked, as Fr. Hesse seems to imply.

The article:   

Medicinal uses of tobacco in history

Anne Charlton, BA PhD

The tobacco plant, Nicotiana, has probably been responsible for more deaths than any other herb. At present, tobacco smoking is causing over 3 million deaths a year worldwide, and if current smoking trends continue the annual mortality will exceed 10 million by around 2030.1 Add to this the mortality from cancers caused by oral uses and the death toll becomes still higher. Undoubtedly, tobacco is the most important avoidable cause of premature death and disease in the world.2

Tobacco leaves and the smoke generated when they are burned contain over 4 thousand chemicals,3 the best known of which is nicotine, first isolated from tobacco leaves in 1828 by Posselt and Reimann.4 It is the nicotine that causes smokers to become addicted to tobacco, and the chemical itself is lethal in small doses.5When tobacco smoke is inhaled, the nicotine passes quickly to every organ of the body. The brain and nervous system are stimulated by small doses and depressed by larger ones.5 Nicotine increases the heart rate and the blood pressure, and may contribute directly to the excess of thrombosis and atheroma in smokers. Nevertheless, nicotine replacement therapy is used in helping people to stop smoking, because it spares them the many other harmful contents of tobacco smoke—for example, the carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and N-nitroso compounds; irritant substances such as acrolein; benzene; formaldehyde; ammonia; acetone; acetic acid, and carbon monoxide.3

The evidence that tobacco causes cardiovascular disease and lung disease took several hundred years to emerge. In the 15th century, when the use of Nicotiana by the indigenous populations in the New World was first observed by Columbus and the plant was brought to Europe, all herbs were considered to have potential therapeutic properties and this new one was used to treat a wide range of conditions. Indeed, Nicotiana acquired a reputation as a panacea, to the extent of being called the ‘holy herb’ and ‘God's remedy’.6 To understand the enthusiasm of Tudor doctors for this newly discovered herb, it is useful to look at the background.


There are over sixty species of Nicotiana. Apart from a few which appear to be native to Australia,7 most are indigenous to America.8 Nicotiana tabacum, the plant now raised for commercial tobacco production, is probably of South American origin and Nicotiana rustica, the other major species which was carried around the world, came from North America. In 1492, Columbus found Native Americans growing and using tobacco, sometimes for its pleasurable effects but often for treatment of various ills. Some of his sailors observed natives of Cuba and Haiti smoking the leaves,9 and subsequent European explorers and travellers corroborated both these observations. The name tobacco was originally applied to the plant in error. In fact this term referred to the cane pipe, called a tabaco or tavaco, with two branches for the nostrils, which was used by the Native Americans for sniffing tobacco smoke.10 The tobacco itself was variously called petum, betum, cogioba, cohobba, quauhyetl, picietl or yietl, and these names sometimes appeared later in herbals or pharmacopoeias.10,11

As early as 15 October 1492 Columbus noted that dried leaves were carried by a man in a canoe near the island of Ferdinandina because they were esteemed for their healthfulness.9 In the same year, two members of his crew observed people in what is now Cuba carrying a burning torch that contained tobacco, the purpose of which (it later emerged) was to disinfect and help ward off disease and fatigue.6 Snuffing of cogioba through the tabaco caused loss of consciousness, Columbus observed, and it is tempting to speculate that this property was used as an anaesthetic for the trepanning operations which were frequent at that time.

Tobacco, probably mixed with lime or chalk, appears to have been used in these Native American populations as a toothpaste to whiten the teeth, as observed by Nino and Guerra in 1500 and by Vespucci at about the same time in Venezuela.11 This practice continues today in India, where powdered tobacco, or masheri, is rubbed on the teeth for this purpose and tobacco toothpaste is marketed commercially.12

It was perhaps in 1500 that the notion of tobacco as a panacea became prevalent. In that year, a Portuguese explorer, Pedro Alvarez Cabral, in Brazil, reported the use of the herb betum for treating ulcerated abscesses, fistulas, sores, inveterate polyps and many other ailments, and said it was called the holy herb because of its powerful virtue in desperate cases.6 Also, reports on medicinal use of tobacco by Native American populations continued to emerge in quantity. For example, in 1529, a Spanish missionary priest, Bernadino de Sahagun, collected information from four Mexican physicians about use of tobacco for medicinal purposes. He recorded that breathing the odour of fresh green leaves of the plant relieved persistent headaches. For colds and catarrh, green or powdered leaves should be rubbed around inside the mouth. Diseases of glands in the neck could be cured by cutting out the root of the lesion and placing on it crushed tobacco plant hot and mixed with salt, on the same spot.9

Later reports of tobacco use by the Native Americans might be less reliable than those from contemporary sources, but in 1934 Fernando Ocaranza summed up the medicinal uses of tobacco in Mexico before 1519 as antidiarrhoeal, narcotic and emollient; he said that tobacco leaves were applied for the relief of pain, used in powdered form for the relief of catarrh and applied locally to heal wounds and burns.6 There are many other reports of medicinal uses of tobacco by precolumbian Native Americans, but the foregoing list is sufficient to indicate the wide usage6,9,13 and to explain why travellers wished to take the plants and seeds back to Europe.


In the days when treatments for many diseases were being sought and herbs of all kinds were considered worth trying, the news of an unfamiliar herb with reputed therapeutic efficacy generated much enthusiasm. So great was the excitement that Nicolas Monardes, the Spanish physician-botanist, included it in a work originally published in the 1570s and later rendered into English as Joyful Newes out of the New-Found World.14 It contains much of what we know about medicinal tobacco at that stage. Tobacco came to feature in a plethora of herbals and pharmacopoeias produced throughout Europe by physicians, botanists, explorers, missionaries and historians. Between 1537 and 1559, books published in Europe and Mexico commonly referred to the medicinal uses of tobacco among the indigenous populations of the New World, with eyewitness accounts of its therapeutic application in general bodily ills, catarrh, colds, and fevers, as an aid to digestion and in prevention of hunger and thirst, as a purgative and as a narcotic.13

There is some uncertainty which species of Nicotiana was first brought to Europe. Probably it was the Flemish herbalist Rembert Dodoens, in Antwerp, who in 1554 published the earliest figure of N. rustica, in his Cruydeboeck, seemingly drawn from a specimen plant.15 Dodoens incorrectly captioned the figure Hyoscyamus luteus, yellow henbane, possibly because of its narcotic qualities. Fuchs in Vienna included four illustrations of N. rustica and N. tabacum in his extended herbal of 1542, though this had not been published.10 Figure 1 is from about 1570.
Figure 1
The first published illustration of Nicotiana tabacum by Pena and De L'Obel, 1570-1571 (shrpium adversana nova: London). The small illustration on the right of the picture shows how the Indians and sailors smoked Nicotiana leaves in a funnel [from New ...

Herbals at this time described not only the plants but also their medicinal applications. A notable example is the illustration from about 1555 by the Franciscan monk André Thevet in Brazil, of smoke being blown at a man from a primitive cigar.16 The condition being treated was later identified as yaws.17 He warned that the smoking of this material (petum) could cause weakness and fainting, and Thevet was not the only one to express reservations about the safety of tobacco. Conrad Gesner, the botanist, physician and scientist, analysed tobacco leaves and reported on their poisonous qualities.18 However, numerous herbs used in medicine had similar toxic properties, and during the sixteenth century there were few ailments for which tobacco was not prescribed.19 The most interesting, and perhaps the most convincing, indication was in the treatment of Noli-me-tangere. This name was given to slow-spreading ulcerating lesions of the skin.20 Later publications suggest that the condition embraced such conditions as lupus and syphilis but that the most frequent cause was probably basal cell cancer (rodent ulcer).20

In about 1560, according to Monardes, the French ambassador to Lisbon, Jean Nicot, was presented with a herb by the keeper of a prison he was visiting.14 It was described as a strange plant brought from Florida. The ambassador had it planted in his garden where ‘it grewe and multiplyed maruellously’. One of Nicot's pages had a Noli-me-tangere on his cheek which was beginning ‘to take root already in the gristles of the nose’, and had himself been applying bruised tobacco leaves and juice to it. Hearing of this, Nicot ordered that the tobacco treatment should be continued for eight or ten days, and at the end of this time ‘this saide Noli me tangere was utterly extinguished and healed’. Throughout the treatment Nicot had the patient's progress monitored by a respected physician to the King of Portugal, who certified the happy outcome. So pleased was Nicot with this cure that, when he heard of two ladies in France who had carcinomas for which no cure could be found, he sent the herb to King Francis II, the Queen Mother and many Lords of Court. Nicot was so liberal and generous with tobacco that it became known as the ambassador's herb or nicotiane—the origin of the name by which we now know it. Nicot used it to treat the father of one of his pages for an ulcerated leg of two years' duration, and healing was reported after ten to twelve days. Similarly, complete healing was described after eight or ten days' treatment in ‘a woman that had her face covered with a Ringworme rooted, as though she had a visor on her face’, and a captain's son was cured of the ‘king's euill’ (scrofula). When a cook in Nicot's household nearly cut off his thumb with a chopping knife, the steward ran for the tobacco plant and bound the thumb back on; after five or six dressings of the same sort, the wound healed. All these uses involved external application of tobacco leaf and its juice, and various recipes are described. Monardes, for instance, specifies that the leaves must be stamped in a clean mortar and both the juice and the leaves applied to the lesion. To ‘cleanse, incarnate, and knit together all maner of wounds’,

‘Take a pound of the freshe Leaves of the sayed Hearbe, stampe them and mingle tham with a newe Waxe, Rosine, common oyle, of each three ounces, let tham boyle altogether, untill the juice of the Nicotiane be consumed, then add thereto three ounces of Venise Turpentine, straine the same through a linen cloth, and keep it in Pottes to your use.’

However, even in this first flush of enthusiasm for the medicinal uses of tobacco, there were those who questioned its efficacy.21 Philaretes, a doctor writing in 1602, raised many criticisms, especially of the indiscriminate use of the herb for all diseases in all age groups without specific measured prescriptions.22Vaughan in 1612, although declaring that ‘tobacco well dried, and taken in a cleane Pipe fasting, in a moist morning, during the Spring or Autumne, cureth the megrim, the toothache, obstructions proceeding of cold and helpeth the fits of the mother’, warned that it could do much harm when abused.23 John Cotta, commenting in 1612 on the use of tobacco as a panacea, remarked ‘Is not this high-blased remedy now manifestly discovered, through intemperance and custome, to be a monster of many diseases?’;24 and in 1633 James Hart, another Doctor in Physick, wrote ‘let no man deceive himself so farre, as to think this to be some famous Panacea, Nepenthe or some golden Elixir, whereof hath beene much bragging, but small benefit as yet reaped’, and added ‘And of this I am verily perswaded, that the excessive and disorderly use of this simple, is as no small cause, as of the more frequent raigning of divers dangerous diseases among us...’.25 As the seventeenth century moved on, doctors increasingly mistrusted tobacco as a medicine, but this did not prevent its retention in pharmacopoeias. John Wesley's Primitive Physick, first published in 1747, recommended it for earache (‘blow the smoke of tobacco strongly into it’), for falling sickness, and for piles (‘apply a tobacco leaf steeped in water twenty-four hours’). Such advice continued as late as the edition of 1847.26


After the isolation of nicotine from tobacco leaves in 1828,4 the medical world became yet more mistrustful of tobacco as a general treatment, now aware that the plant contained a dangerous alkaloid. Nicotine began to be used alone and more effort was made to measure doses. For example, a preparation of nicotine salicylate as a 0.1% salve replaced an infusion of leaf tobacco boiled in water as a treatment for scabies.17 However, even tobacco smoke per rectum was still being advocated, for conditions as varied as strychnine poisoning, constipation, strangulated hernia, tetanus, hydrophobia and worms.9 In a 1958 paper Silvette and co-workers17 scanned the medical press for case studies of tobacco treatments published between 1785 and 1860 and provided an overview of treatment outcomes for a range of conditions. Subsequently Stewart13analysed these 128 cases and came up with the following breakdown: 97 treatments successful, 4 fatal, 10 poisoned the patient, 17 other outcomes. The allegedly successful ones are summarized in Box 1.

Box 1 ‘Successful’ uses of tobacco as identified by Stewart

Tobacco administered externally

Bites of poisonous reptiles and insects; hysteria; pain, neuralgia; laryngeal spasm; gout; growth of hair; tetanus; ringworm ; rodent ulcer; ulcers; wounds; respiratory stimulant

Tobacco administered by rectum

Constipation; haemorrhoidal bleeding

Tobacco administered by mouth

Strangulated hernia (smoke by mouth); malaria or intermittent fever; dislodging obstructive material from oesophagus by inducing vomiting

Tobacco administered by inhalation

Nasal polyps.

Among those who doubted the claims of success was Todd, in his Lumleian Lecture of 1849. ‘Tobacco’, he declared, ‘undoubtedly reduces the polar state of the cord, but it produces at the same time a state of fearful depression. It is likewise an unsafe and not a manageable remedy. I have seen more than one patient die, cured of Tetanus under this remedy.’27 During the nineteenth century, new methods of administering tobacco treatments included aetherial tincture, poultices and snuff patches.


Even in the twentieth century, the therapeutic use of tobacco did not completely lapse. For example, in 1924, a salve made of burned tobacco leaves mixed with lanolin was said to be dessicant, stimulant and antiseptic for pruritus, ringworm, athlete's foot, superficial ulcers and wounds (it was also said to be good as a metal polish).17 Moreover, its disinfectant properties continued to generate debate. We have seen how, in the New World discovered by Columbus, tobacco smoke was used to ward off disease, and the sixteenth century doctors applied the leaves or a tobacco ointment or poultice to infected wounds. During the London plague of 1665 children were instructed to smoke in their schoolrooms;28 and in 1882, in a Bolton outbreak of smallpox, tobacco was actually issued to all the residents of a workhouse.29 However, claims for such protective effects did not go indisputed. For example, in 1889 an anonymous article in the British Medical Journal,30 whilst acknowledging the experimental evidence that the pyridine in smoke kills germs and the evidence that smokers appeared to be at lower risk of diphtheria and typhus, concluded that people who can tolerate tobacco are likely to be robust in other ways and thus able to resist infection; non-smokers, the article concluded, would be ill advised to take up smoking, which would make them more vulnerable. An anonymous article in The Lancet31 in 1913 discusses the ‘pyridin’ content of tobacco smoke and describes experiments showing that tobacco smoke destroys the comma bacillus of cholera; but again it warns that tobacco smoking can ‘give rise to constitutional effects which diminish the resisting power of the body to disease’.

Later in the twentieth century, attention switched to diseases affecting the brain and nervous system. In 1926, Moll reported that, when thirteen patients with post-encephalitic parkinsonism were treated with subcutaneous injections of nicotine, nine showed immediate improvement in muscular movement.32 He concluded that, although the benefit was only temporary, ‘the immediate results were indisputable’. A kindred observation is that, in at least three case-control studies, the relative risk of Parkinson's disease was lower in smokers than in non-smokers, though other factors could be operating to produce this apparent effect.33 Case-control studies also suggest a possible inverse association between cigarette smoking, Alzheimer's disease34 and Tourette's syndrome,35 but the same reservations apply.


Tobacco has long been removed from pharmacopoeias and from medical practice. Stewart's conclusion from her review to 1860 was that ‘The best that can be said of it was that in many cases tobacco alleviated pain.’13In my own review of the published work four points struck me forcibly. First, too much was expected of tobacco. In medieval times, most herbs would be used only for a few conditions in which it was deemed effective—not for a vast range of disorders from head lice to haemorrhoids, from hysteria to tetanus, as happened with tobacco. Secondly, writings on this subject commonly imply that nicotine is the only active medicinal constituent, yet the various species of Nicotiana contain many other alkaloids.36,37 Thirdly, the leaves and juice were much used for skin disorders, possibly including basal cell cancer. Might tobacco leaves contain an anticancer agent, as proved to be the case with periwinkle (vinca alkaloids)? Fourthly, in therapeutic applications of tobacco, dosage was largely uncontrolled. With any useful agent, excess dosage will do harm. I suggest we should set aside the prejudices generated by the ill-effects of tobacco smoking and examine the leaves systematically for substances of therapeutic value.

1. Peto R, Lopez AD, Boreham J, Thun M, Heath C Jr, Doll R. Mortality from smoking worldwide. Br Med Bull 1996;52: 12-21 [PubMed]

2. US Department of Health and Human Services. The Health Consequences of Smoking. A Report by the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: US Department of Health and Human Services, 1982

3. US Environmental Protection Agency. Respiratory Effects of Passive Smoking: Lung Cancer and Other Disorders: The Report of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Monograph 4. NIH Publication No. 93-3605. US Department of Health and Human Services, 1993

4. Posselt W, Reimann L. Chemische Untersuchungen des Tabaks und Darstellung des eigenhumlichen wirksamen Principes dieser Pflanze. Geigers Magazin der Pharmazie 1828;24: 138-61

5. Royal College of Physicians. Smoking or Health. Tunbridge Wells: Pitman Medical, 1977

6. Dickson SA. Panacea or Precious Bane. Tobacco in 16th Century Literature. New York: New York Public Library, 1954

7. Feinhandler SJ, Fleming HC, Monahan JM. Pre-Columbian tobaccos in the Pacific. Economic Botany, 1979;33: 213-26

8. Goodspeed TH. The Genus Nicotiana. Waltham, Mass: Chronica Botanica, 1954

9. Brookes JE. The Mighty Leaf: Tobacco Through the Centuries. Boston: Little, Brown, 1952

10. Meyer FG, Trueblood EE, Heller JL. The Great Herbal of Leonard Fuchs: De historia stirpium commentaria insignes, 1542, Vol 1: Commentary, Vol 2: Facsimile Chapter 5. The Vienna Codex: Leonard Fuchs's Unpublished Herb Book. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999

11. Brookes JE. Tobacco: Its History Illustrated by The Books, Manuscripts and Drawings and Engravings in the Library of George Arents Jr, Vol 1: 1507-1615. New York: Rosenbach, 1937

12. Charlton A, Moyer CA. Children and Tobacco: the Wider View. Geneva: International Union Against Cancer, 1991

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-- Royal Society of Medicine

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