Shortly after Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas, the Spanishexplorer Rodrigo de Jerez discovered tobacco smoking in Cuba and becameone of the first recorded Europeans to take up the habit. Returning to Spainhe was imprisoned by the Inquisition; people thought he was possessed by demons because of the smoke coming from his mouth and nose. Littledid they know how right they were. The curse of the tobacco demonshave been with us ever since.

Jerez was released from prison after about seven years, and by then the useof tobacco had spread throughout Europe. By the mid-16th century JeanNicot, French Ambassador to Portugal, was promoting the use of tobacco as amedicine. From Nicot we get the term nicotine to describe the addictiveingredient which is the plant’s main attraction.

Meanwhile, Portuguese andSpanish sailors are becoming hooked on the weed and establishingplantations along the trade routes to provide the food for the monkey ontheir backs. By the 17th century the demand for tobacco iseconomically significant, providing investment opportunities which facilitateits further spread. An addictive drug combined with the chance to make a lotof money — had there been Hell’s Angels they would have been in the middleof it in a flash.

Early governments tried to control the use of tobacco, some requiring adoctor’s prescription to use it, others making its use a capital offense.Russians were sent to Siberia for using it, and at one time in Turkey up to 18users per day were being executed.

And, while its use among indigenousAmericans was often connected to religious practices, in Europe and Asiaclerics railed against it and Popes issued edicts condemning it. Yet, as in thecase of most any dependency creating substance, addicts — combined with thegreat fortunes to be made by feeding the addiction — stacked the deck against asuccessful prohibition. By the mid 1600s in Turkey the ban on tobacco waslifted and according to historian Ibrahim Pecevi it joined coffee, wine andopium as one of the four “cushions on the sofa of pleasure.”

As we know, pleasure often comes with a price, and the price that tobaccoextracts is killing us. It is estimated that almost five million people die eachyear, worldwide, from tobacco-related problems. In Canada alone thatfigure is about 45,000. Yet tobacco addicts and the tobaccocompanies who feed their addiction still persist in the face of common senseto perpetuate a practice that is both physically and socially destructive — a practice that not only harms the health of those around them, but robsresources from all of us through unnecessary demands on the healthcaresystem.

There is clear evidence today, not only of the harm that smoke does to thosewho purposely inhale it, but also to everyone within breathingrange of the cloud of gaseous sewage emanating from the face of smokers.The State of California estimates that about 3,000 non-smokers dieeach year of lung cancer attributed to exposure to second-hand smoke. And,that is just the tip of the iceberg. Incidental smoke is also attributed as acause of heart disease, asthma and various respiratory disorders afflictingnon-smokers, and is believed to be a factor in Sudden Infant DeathSyndrome (SIDS).

Smokers — and all of us — need to take this issue seriously, and toning down criticism makes it seem acceptable. Common sense — as well as the statistics — says that it is not. Smokers who complain are not far removed from those drunk drivers who would complain about criticism of their habit of having a few while they cruise down the 401. This is a social pattern that we need to break, and those who engage in it should feel uncomfortable about it, as should those who profit from it.

As I write this it is May 31, World No Tobacco Day and the good news is thatthere is now an international treaty being put in force to deal with the plagueof tobacco usage: the World Health Organization Framework Convention onTobacco Control (WHO FCTC). Over 50 countries, including Canada, havecommitted to this treaty which, among other objectives, is to protect peoplefrom tobacco smoke, and will set international standards on tobacco price andtax increases, advertising, sponsorship, labelling, illicit trade and second handsmoke, and more.

The bad news is that the United States has failed to signon to yet another progressive and socially responsible initiative, but whatelse is new? History and common sense favour the non-smoker; Darwinism isdealing with the rest. With more protections, fewer of the sensible people willbecome road kill from this quite destructive practice.

As Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland of the WHO said: “A cigarette is the onlyconsumer product which when used as directed kills its consumer.” Those whochoose not to consume should not be forced to die.