The Magazine

Thou Shalt Not

The vice squads keep changing their minds.

Feb 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 23 • By PATRICK COOKE
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Oh, what fun smokers won’t be having in 2014. As of New Year’s Day, Boston joined six other large cities banning smoking in its 251 city parks. The fine for violation is $250 and includes anyone caught “vaping” a smokeless electronic cigarette. In Oregon, there is now a $500 fine for smoking in a private automobile with a person 18 years old or younger on board; and in Illinois, flicking a cigarette butt out a car window—what was called “dinching” in the Bogie and Bacall era—could result in a $1,500 fine. The CVS pharmaceutical chain has announced that it will stop selling cigarettes this year. 

Carrie Nation (1910)

Carrie Nation (1910)

Bettmann / Corbis / AP Images

On the bright side, however, you can smoke dope to your heart’s content in Colorado. And yet, only a generation ago, cigarette smoking was considered normal behavior, while lighting a joint was regarded as the act of a deviant. These shifting social views are the subject of this deeply researched study. Virginia Berridge, a professor of history at the University of London, focuses largely on social movements within the United Kingdom, but there are many parallels with historical trends in the United States. She notes that the paths alcohol, tobacco, and drugs took to their present cultural standings sometimes historically converged, sometimes veered apart, but pretty much ended in the same place.

Humanity has a long tradition of getting a buzz on, and the author begins her survey in the Bronze Age, with the first recorded brewing of beer. Cannabis, she notes, was known to the Chinese as well as to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The coca leaf has been around since the discovery of the Americas. 

For generations, opium was the opiate of the people, particularly in England: Until the mid-1800s, it was as common as aspirin. Bad cough? The pharmacist would fix you up with an opium concoction called “All Fours.” Sick child? A good shot of opium-based “Infant’s Thunder” would put him right. Cocaine was believed to cure bashfulness, as well as cancer and nymphomania, and it improved one’s marksmanship. Meantime, it was common, and apparently acceptable, for the local squire to fall dead drunk under the table at any moment. 

The Victorians, in particular, knew how to party hearty; but that era also produced the first serious party-poopers. Members of a rising temperance movement, supported by the Quakers and women’s groups in search of a larger role in public life, argued for “moral suasion,” calling on addicts to take a pledge of sobriety. Their efforts eventually widened from a focus on the individual: They lobbied for government aid demanding the licensing of public houses in the belief that regulation could control distribution. The state turned for advice to medical societies, and thus was born the public health professional who moved for rehabilitation over drunk tanks. 

In time, drugging (and excessive drinking) became “detached” from the social mainstream. Such behavior was to be feared by decent middle-class folk. Depictions of opium dens, such as those that appear in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), revealed scenes of depraved human wreckage. No antivice tactic worked more effectively for reformers, however, than dark warnings about the toll of drink and drugs on women: Nothing less than “the future of the race” was at stake if women succumbed to temptation.  

Such heart-wrenching arguments were impossible for politicians to dismiss as they were pressed to take more regulatory action and impose prohibitions. But hard to ignore, too, was the financial benefit that came from taxing vices, particularly after improvements in the mass production and distribution of booze made drinking more accessible. It was a conflict that was to last for generations. Berridge writes of the Volstead Act (1920):

U.S. prohibition has had a lot of bad press; it came to an end largely because of the Great Depression which took hold from 1929. The prospect of substantial revenue from taxing alcohol, during a time when the taxable economy had shrunk, was hard for the government to resist.

Smoking managed to avoid “social repositioning” until the 1960s, even though people began stuffing tobacco in clay pipes 300 years earlier. In the 1970s, public health advocates used mass media to convey the notion that smoking was for losers and to portray the little guy as tilting against giant corporate manufacturers—Big Tobacco—just as temperance advocates had railed against breweries in the 19th century. Smoking’s last gasp came in the mid-1980s, with alarms about the risk of “passive smoking” to nonsmokers, a “danger” the author suggests was overblown but which provided a social tipping point for the antismoking forces: “Certainly [the second-hand smoke argument] seemed to be a ‘fact waiting to happen,’ science which supported the policy directions in which public health interests wished it to move.” 

The passive-smoking gambit helps define the current public health strategy regarding alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. Today, the emphasis is on protecting innocent victims from the harm created by the few who are “dependent” due to “lifestyle choices” that require “behavioral changes.” Junkies can be given methadone; smokers can be given nicotine patches; boozers can be steered to counseling. Society’s goal should be to prevent such people from endangering the rest of us. A pregnant woman smoking in public presents a risk not only to her innocent unborn child but to the commonweal as well. She is, after all, jeopardizing the future of the race. 

Despite this book’s fun cover art—a come-hither 1920s flapper holding bottles of hooch—Berridge’s study is more likely to satisfy policy wonks and public health advocates than those with a casual interest in the history of ingestible corruption. The author is evenhanded and nonjudgmental and gives no hint of her leanings. Still, given all she knows about our demons, the reader is left wondering what conclusions she draws about why mankind has longed, for so long, to get high.  

She does end with a wry bit of good news, however. One drug that has, thus far, mostly escaped the notice of reformers is khat, a flowering plant that delivers a mild stimulant when chewed. It is the drug of choice in East Africa, which means you’ll feel right at home if you ever find yourself riding along with Somali pirates. If you want to smoke, however, you’ll have to go outside. 

Patrick Cooke is a writer and critic in Pelham, New York.