Farewell, tobacco. You’re a drug now and we don’t hang out with druggies. But, oh, before you fell, what history, what innocent bliss, what romance! They can’t take that away from us; even though President Obama has signed into law a bill which classifies tobacco as a drug, and the Food and Drug Administration will be landing its troops in Marlboro Country any day now, there are memories.
Tobacco has killed in my family, so I should have no brief for it, but I do. Close friends have died, too; or they’re lung cancer survivors.
Yet it was tobacco that sustained the early settles of Virginia (which gave its name to the most popular variety of cigarette tobacco) and it remained an economic force until recent times.
In distant Zimbabwe, were I grew up, tobacco was king. Tobacco dwarfed corn as the cash crop of choice; and even city dwellers admired tobacco farmers, frequently known as “tobacco barons.”
At my school, the boys whose fathers grew tobacco were the plutocrats, Of course, they really weren’t that rich–it was just in relation to the rest of the population. They could do things that their relative wealth made possible; things like taking European vacations and buying new cars every few years.
There were, in those days, whispers about the health effects of smoking. The editor of the farming paper asked me to go out and find out if it was only American tobacco that was a problem and not the local crop. He was determined to be right, but no such luck.
Later, in the 1960s, I heard cigarette workers in Richmond, Va., proclaim that the famous Surgeon General’s report on smoking and health was a “communist plot.”
Tobacco favored light, sandy soils that were not ideal for citrus, corn, soy, or tea: the crops that sustained Zimbabwe’s economy until President Robert Mugabe destroyed the farming class, and farming productivity dwindled and ceased. I loved visiting tobacco farms. You would walk down the rows feeling the leaves, which left a slightly sticky residue on your hands. And I reveled in the heavy smell in the curing barns.
Later, living in England, I learned of the other pleasure of tobacco: the luxurious smokerama: glorious Cartier gold lighters, exquisite Tiffany silver cigarette boxes, elegant lacquered cigarette holders (could we have had Coward without them?), cigar cutters and humidors (Kennedy’s revenge against Castro), pipes of all kinds, from brier to Meerschaum to corn cob. Could MacArthur have prevailed without his modest corn cob pipe or Churchill triumphed without a mighty cigar?
There’s no more Sobranie Cocktail or Black Russian cigarettes in a girlfriend’s Christmas stocking, no Oval Turkish in Dad’s; and little brother who thought it was cool to upset people with a pack of Gaulois stuffed in his back pocket won’t be getting the satisfaction again.
Those great movies of the 1930s and 1940s depended on cigarettes as props. When the director called “action” someone was expected to light up. Now, only the villains light up. Some revisionists have suggested that old movies should be edited to remove the cigarettes so that children will not be tempted to take up the habit. But Bogart, Cagney, Cooper, Gable and Mitchum, to say nothing of Davis and Crawford, would be unsexy if film editors took away their oral satisfiers. Their characters would go up in smoke, so to speak.
Sadly, all bad things must come to an end. Remember that Venetian glass ashtray, that sophisticated cigarette holder, even that vintage Ronson lighter, well, they are all now drug paraphernalia. –For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate