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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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.