Tobacco Smoking in History and Culture

April 6, 2005

Carol Ann Benedict, associate professor of history, Georgetown University, and fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center
Ruth Mandel, lecturer, Department of Anthropology, University College London, and Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson Center
Marcy Norton, assistant professor of history, George Washington University

Tobacco smoking has long been a conspicuous feature of daily life in many regions of the world. Why is tobacco consumption more popular in some countries than in others? What are its social roots and implications for human health? Three experts participated in an April 6 seminar hosted by the Asia Program to examine tobacco smoking from historical and cultural perspectives.

Benedict discussed tobacco consumption in China from its introduction in the mid sixteenth century to the present, by analyzing the historical and cultural factors that have shaped Chinese tobacco use. She observed the popularity of smoking among Chinese traditional scholar/bureaucrats and soldiers, as well as modern leaders and intellectuals such as Mao Zedong and Lu Shun. She also noted the impact of advertising on the increase of female smoking, and the ongoing value of tobacco as a gift commodity with social and symbolic significance.

Mendel examined tobacco consumption in the former Soviet Union, particularly in Kazakhstan. Smoking was basically a male behavior, and "good girls" were not supposed to smoke. As a result, the male lifespan in Kazakhstan was 15 years shorter than in other European countries. Because of health concerns, the legal age for smoking has increased from 14 to 16.

Norton discussed tobacco consumption in North, Central and South America in history. According to her, tobacco consumption in the ancient Aztec Empire was associated with two major social groups: priests and medical healers. Since the sixteenth century, tobacco production and trade have developed in Latin America, thanks to European initiation and local people's need for survival.

This seminar provided an academic forum to explore tobacco consumption from a comparative perspective. It shed light on a number of factors—-including foreign influence, tradition, and values of hospitality, sociability, and reciprocity—-contributing to smoking in all three countries.

Drafted by Gang Lin, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program
Ph: (202) 691-4020