Confessions of a Tobacco Fiend

By Leonard, John | The Nation, April 25, 1994 | Go to article overview

Confessions of a Tobacco Fiend


Leonard, John, The Nation


It is only in lighting this cigarette that I discover my concrete possibility or, if one prefers, my desire to smoke.

--Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness

So, with a bill to ban smoking anywhere in the United States except my downstairs closet stalled in fuddy-duddy Congress, Labor Secretary Robert Reich and his band of merry trolls at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration propose by ukase to purge the workplace of every last filthy weed, except in New Jersey. This, on top of a House subcommittee proposal to sextuple the federal tax on a pack of coffin nails, from 24 cents to $1.49, in order to bankroll a health care system overhaul, if there is one, by socking the poor and sinful. Plus Representative Henry Waxman, the California Democrat who dreams out loud of criminalizing nicotine while listening to David Kessler, the Food and Drugs Commissioner, who can't make up his mind whether the tobacco companies are souping up their product with extra addictive syrup, which he seemed to suggest in a February 25 letter to the Coalition on Smoking OR Health, or merely that they possess the patented technology to do so if they want to, which is all he allowed himself to say on March 25 to Waxman, after news reports of the $10 billion libel suit Philip Morris slapped on ABC for having alleged in its Day One magazine show that the companies do want to and have done so. Not to mention the class-action suit by flight attendants over secondhand smoke that recently survived a Florida appeals court challenge. And the unseemly scramble, as if for African colonies, of vote-grubbing city councils in half the nation's toxic dumpsites to shut down mild-mannered restaurants, even bars, where once upon a time our Bogeys and our Bacalls gazed at each other through a pall of mall. And the frightwig who just sat herself down next to me in an otherwise empty smoking section at the local coffee shop, wearing the pelt of a dead marsupial, smelling like the guts of a sperm whale, to complain immediately about the cigarette I'd already stubbed out because I've been browbeaten into feeling ashamed of my pariah self in a shameless Republic of moralizing busybody bullies, professional crybabies, post-therapeutic vegetarian hysterics and Rogaine-abusing Health Nazi joggers.

This is not a brief for the Merchants of Death. They wouldn't read it, anyway, so busy are they suppressing research papers on the behavior of nicotine-addicted dope-fiend rodents. This is a brief for the dope-fiend rodents. To feel better about the world, according to Richard Rudgley's forthcoming book Essential Substances: A Cultural History of Intoxicants in Society (Kodansha): Siberian shamans from the Stone Age on partook of the fly-agaric mushroom. Nor would the rock paintings of San bushmen of the Kalahari and Shoshonean Coso of the California Great Basin have looked the same without some sort of hallucinogen. We know from the bat caves of southern Spain, as well as from the tomb art and Breton megaliths of Neolithic France, that poppies were about, as they had been in the Late Minoan III period of the ornamental vases. Hemp was around on the Pontic Steppes, all over the Carpathian Basin, in "pipe cups" from the Caucasian Early Bronze Age and in grave chambers at the Hochdord Hallstaff D in Stuttgart. Among Scythians, an ecstatic vapor bath was as much of a favorite back then as it is now among Arctic peoples. In the Indian Rig Veda and the Iranian Avesta there is an awful lot of soma mentioned, and no other way to account for the geometries of Persian carpet design. The mang consumed to secure the visions of that third-century classic of Zoroastrian literature, the Book of Arda Wiraz, probably contained some of the same chemicals found in the Amazonian jungle vine Banisteriopsis (or yaje), used by Amerindians for the clairvoyant detection of criminal activities, as well as for seeing jaguars. Bird-bone snuffing tubes! Spatulas! Cactus! …

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