Tobacco, history and irony

Michael Burke

Thursday, July 18, 2013

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HISTORY and irony were created in Jamaica on Monday July 15. It was the first day of the enactment of the new law that bans smoking in public places. History was created because it is a new law and demonstrates that we have come a long way from the days when every home had several ashtrays, a fact that youngsters under the age of 35 might not appreciate.

Could such a law be even contemplated, let alone enacted, a mere 20 years ago? My parents did not smoke but we had several ashtrays because just about all of my parents' friends and acquaintances were smokers. Even their children (including me) saw them as odd because they did not smoke.

"Daddy, why don't you smoke?" one of my sisters asked my father when we were children (about the year 1961 when I was seven going on eight). My father explained that smoking tobacco causes cancer and that he was saving his health to support the family. He also told us that certain extra privileges that we had he was able to afford out of his savings from not smoking.

But the fact that my parents did not smoke did not let them off the hook in terms of having to provide ashtrays at home for smokers. As an asthmatic myself, I do not know how much of my physical discomfort from childhood to this day was caused by second-hand smoke. Yet medical doctors said on the radio in the 1960s that there was no evidence that second-hand smoke ever did anyone harm.

Even medical doctors smoked. The Jamaica Information Service in the late 1950s and early 1960s put out a weekly publication called Jamaica Now. In one of those publications there was a picture of the then health minister Dr Ivan Lloyd smoking.

In the photograph Dr Lloyd and Sir Alexander Bustamante (then opposition leader) were looking at the paperwork for a new building yet to be erected. I recall that the Reverend Devon Dick had commented when Desmond Leaky was minister of health, "So now we have a minister of health who smokes". I subsequently wrote that even Dr Ivan Lloyd, a medical doctor who was a previous minister of health, also smoked.

Indeed, smoking was a sign of being an adult just as was said for taking strong alcoholic drinks. People who needed to work at nights like journalists did a lot of smoking. Many lives were lost during the Second World War as moves were made on the enemy. On many occasions, some 'bright spark' soldier got the idea to light up a cigarette and, as my cadet Officer in Command (OC) would say, the enemy just sprayed the area (with bullets).

And by the way, my OC was a retired army sergeant major so we got the real para-military training. In those days the cadet corps was for males only, so no part of the training was 'watered down' for girls. Incidentally, my OC did not smoke but he liked his liquor, and we cadets had great fun at his quips when he was intoxicated.

But our housemaster in boarding school at Jamaica College was something else. A few years before I attended JC, the housemaster, while drunk one weekend, shouted to the house captain that the building was on fire. When the house captain asked where was the fire the housemaster replied, "On the tip of my cigarette."

The new anti-smoking legislation is ironic because during the Spanish era of Jamaica's history, the African slaves were brought here precisely to plant and reap tobacco. The Spaniards and the early conquerors found that the indigenous peoples smoked tobacco.

The Tainos in Jamaica (they were not Arawaks), who were originally from Asia and closer to the Chinese in ethnicity than Indians, smoked tobacco. So did the indigenous people in the rest of the region and they were all from the same wider geographical area as China. At that time in European history, a sign that someone had travelled and had wealth was the fact that he smoked a pipe filled with tobacco.

The story is told that the manservant of Sir Walter Raleigh thought that his employer was on fire as he smoked a pipe, so he doused him with water. Such was the ignorance pertaining to smoking in Europe some 500 years ago. With the new anti-smoking legislation, such ignorance could very well return ironically in the land where the conquerors came and saw people smoking tobacco.

The Jamaican planters shifted to sugar when Virginia tobacco put Jamaica's tobacco out of business. But the tobacco industry continued as a secondary industry until recent times. In the early 2000s the cigarette manufacturers were obliged by government to sponsor the National Health Fund. That was a good move but if the tobacco industry folds altogether, will the National Health Fund also fold?

Perhaps the greatest example of the power of advertising has to do with the whole development of cigarette smoking. Until the obligation placed on American cigarette companies to put the warning on each cigarette box that "The Surgeon General has determined that smoking, is dangerous to your health", the majority of adults smoked.

To get women to start smoking, the late actress Shirley Temple was commissioned as a young woman to appear on film smoking, and after that most ladies wanted to smoke just like Shirley Temple. From that time, tobacco sales more than doubled, I would imagine.

I would not be surprised if it was found that cigarette smoking advertisements represented an advance in the whole advertising industry. From then on we know that advertising can convince people much better than doctors telling people that cigarette smoking is dangerous to one's health.

But while it as a good move to curtail smoking, why is it being done? Is it being done out of love, or is it that some funding agency refuses to fund health care when it is self-inflicted by tobacco smoking?

Is the government merely meeting the conditions of some lending agency or other? True, it does not really matter once the health of the nation is improved but I must admit that as a political analyst, I am very curious as to the real reason for the ban.





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