The War on Tobacco

For your health and safety: on the corruption of the spirit of tobacco

When it comes to how you are being poisoned in the name of health, one of the more exemplary topics is tobacco.

A regular packet of cigarettes or tobacco sold in drug stores and gas stations today is filled with chemical additives, around 600 of which have been identified, including ammonia, cellulose fibres, sugar, sorbitol, artificial sweeteners, caffeine, and glycerol. Smoking these products is therefore in no way comparable to smoking natural tobacco. Yet one hears continuously that smoking causes cancer. Smoking what, exactly?

Why all these additives? Tobacco companies offer different explanations: to improve the taste, to make the tobacco burn better, to make the tobacco less dry, to make the smoke less harsh, etc. Bronchodilators are added to help smoke enter the lungs, while ammonia makes the nicotine reach the brain faster. Brands also use additives to give a specific taste to their cigarettes, therefore differentiating their products in the market. 

Companies experiment constantly with combinations of additives to improve the taste of their cigarette and create a more addictive product. Many are known to be toxic while the effects of many others have never been studied, let alone what happens when they are burnt and inhaled. The sheer number of additives makes studies on the effects of tobacco nearly impossible. If you are smoking tobacco plus 50 different chemicals, how are you going to determine what precisely is causing the harm? It makes sense why nicotine has been singled out as the bogeyman by the anti-smoking propaganda, because it is the one constant in all tobacco products. Yet tobacco has long been used as a traditional medicinal plant.

The use of additives is dark business, and likely responsible for the fact that, despite rates of smoking decreasing over the past 60 years, the risks of dying from cigarette smoke have increased. This was the conclusion of a 2014 report by the US surgeon general. And in addition to the chemical additives in the tobacco itself, most cigarettes come with a filter, employed theoretically so that less tar is inhaled. Seems like a good thing, right? Except that these filters are made out of microplastics, which are themselves burned and inhaled.

Of course, everyone knows tobacco companies are evil, making cigarettes more addictive and deadly solely for profit. But more subtle and arguably even more evil is how these tobacco companies work together with health ministries around the world. Toxic additives and microplastic filters are added ‘for your health’, in response to government anti-smoking propaganda. 

Until the 1950’s practically no cigarette had a filter. To be sure, the first filtered cigarettes were made in 1925 using crepe paper and some companies sold cigarettes with filters back then, but it was seen as a rarity. However, in the early 1950’s doctors and scientists increasingly started speaking about the health costs of smoking, linking it to lung disease and throat irritation. A concerted social and governmental push to make tobacco less harmful began. And lo and behold, tobacco companies already had a solution: the filter. 

By the late 1960s, filtered cigarettes dominated the global market. The use of additives blew up around the same time, and has been increasing ever since. As reports about the dangers of smoking increased, the number of additives in cigarettes was also increasing. What was really driving what? As we now know from the experience of Covid-19, government ministries and their corporate allies have a habit of implementing strategies that make determining causation very difficult.

Anti-smoking propaganda forces companies to find ways to make their products less harmful, and as a result they end up making even more dangerous, but also more profitable products, wrapped in the rhetoric of concern for your health. Commercial cigarettes burn up in no time, while additive-free cigarettes take ages to burn up. Why? Because additives are added to make the cigarette burn faster. Why? Because if the cigarette is finished more quickly, you will be inhaling less dangerous tobacco. Less puffs, less cancer. This is the official logic behind many of these additives. Natural tobacco is loose and dry, but commercial rolling tobacco is sticky and moist. It’s for your benefit. Sticky tobacco is easier to roll, and helps you avoid sucking in tobacco. Better inhaling burnt sugar and cellulose-fibres than swallowing a loose leaf of tobacco!

So now you can simply start buying additive-free blends? Sadly not. In most European countries, it has become quite hard to find additive-free blends in stores, whereas they used to be widely available. Health ministries and doctors agree that tobacco itself (and especially nicotine) is the harmful agent in smoking, so that a blend that contains little tobacco but mostly synthetic fibres and sugars is maintained to be a safer product. Health ministries therefore systematically push to take natural products off their shelves – for your health. 

American Tobacco, maker of Lucky Strikes, was the first cigarette company to use physicians in their ads (1930)

Meanwhile brands advertising their products as ‘additive-free’ or ‘natural’ are said to be deceiving you, because they create the illusion that their product is more healthy. Because of course these natural products often contain more “dangerous” tobacco than blends with dozens of synthetic chemical additives.

It’s true that one of the most harmful aspects of smoking today is the packaging, but in precisely the opposite way. In many countries tobacco companies are no longer allowed to advertise, and their packaging has to be neutral. Only the name of the brand and pictures of diseased organs and dead people are allowed. It cannot be overemphasized how important the mind is when it comes to health: studies showing the power of “placebo” and “nocebo” effects have repeatedly replicated. Convince people that they are burning a hole in their throat by smoking, and the body will respond. 

A few years ago there was a story of a woman who claimed pictures of her deceased father were being used on cigarette packaging without her or her father having given consent. Furthermore the man’s death was entirely unrelated to smoking. The EU body responsible for distributing these images in Europe claimed in response that the woman was wrong, and the picture wasn’t her father. She may indeed have been wrong, but the fact remains that pictures of people who died of diseases unrelated to smoking are being used to scare you into compliance. Sounds familiar? 

Tobacco is an ancient plant which has been used as a medicine for thousands of years. Cultivation sites dating to 1400-1000BC have been discovered in Mexico, and native American tribes still use tobacco as a traditional healing plant. Among these groups, tobacco is referred to as ‘the ancient one’ and said to supply clarity and wisdom by connecting users to the great Spirit of the cosmos. Before a healer treats a patient, he first consults the tobacco plant to gain superior insight into the needs of the patient. No wonder. Modern scientific studies show that nicotine is linked to greater focus, and enhanced cognition. The stereotype of the chain smoking writer, artist or the programmer high on nicotine gum exists for a reason, and it isn’t just cultural. 

In ceremonial traditions using Ayahuasca, the shaman guides the journey by blowing tobacco-smoke on participants. Ayahuasca has an earthy, feminine, Dionysian energy. It is often referred to as ‘Mother’ or ‘Grandmother’ and connects participants to the Divine Feminine, the body, the emotions and the earth. Tobacco by contrast is Apollonian, masculine. It is a plant that connects to the mind. 

In ritual contexts, tobacco is used to guide one through the jungle of the chthonic. Tobacco acts as a mediator between humans and gods, shielding the user from negative energies, and keeping his or her mind set on the divine cosmic order. Anyone who smokes natural tobacco or uses tobacco in other ways feels this immediately. Tobacco generates sharper mental energy, and increases focus. All life originates from the earth, and from water. But to progress from biological to psychical life, feminine energy must be balanced by the masculine energy of air, fire, reason, order and mind. This is where tobacco comes in; it aids the passage from biological, sensuous life, to the life of reason. 

Fire and air are blown into matter, and man is opened up to the transcendent. Strength, mental clarity, purification, protection and Spirit. The plant is supposed to generate clarity and purify excessive attachments to the material life of the senses. The substance does not so much feed you, as that it cleans you. For example, tobacco cleanses the digestive system, and has anti-parasitic properties. But by adding sugars, synthetic plant fibres, plastics, gums, oils, and who knows what else, the tobacco experience is changed. It’s no longer dry and sharp, but sweet and full. It no longer just activates the brain, but ‘feeds’ the body. The clean, fiery energy of tobacco has become an ennervating energy, trapping smokers in the body. Tobacco is meant to purify, and activate those aspects of one’s being that transcend body. But by poisoning tobacco with additives the spirit of the plant has been corrupted – in the name of health.

Tólma is a writer. He writes on tolma.substack.com.


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