University of Leicester eBulletin

When Smoking Was Believed to Cure Cancer!

March 2003
No 78

Smoking was believed to provide a cure for cancer! - That’s one of the surprising facts arising from a detailed study into tobacco use by a University of Leicester academic.

Dr Jason Hughes has moved beyond the study of the biological addiction to smoking in his new book Learning to Smoke: Tobacco Use in the West and instead examines how social and personal understandings of smoking crucially affect the way people experience it.

Dr Hughes, a Lecturer in the University’s Centre for Labour Market Studies, has a particular interest in sociology and uses this to address the question of why people smoke.

He said: “Learning to Smoke examines the diverse sociological and cultural processes that have compelled people to smoke since the practice was first introduced to the West during the sixteenth century. I aim to move beyond the usual focus on pharmacological addiction that dominates news coverage and public health studies and invite readers to reconsider how social and personal understandings of smoking crucially affect the way people experience it.

“I have traced the transformations of tobacco and its use over time, from its role as a hallucinogen in Native American shamanistic ritual to its use as a prophylactic against the plague and a cure for cancer by early Europeans, and finally to the current view of smoking as a global pandemic.

“I also analyse tobacco from the perspective of the individual user, exploring how its consumption relates to issues of identity and life changes. Comparing sociocultural and personal experiences, I ultimately ask what the patterns of tobacco use mean for the clinical treatment of smokers and for public policy on smoking.”

Dr Hughes claims thinking about smoking simply as an addiction negates fundamental issues of why people smoke: “On first sight, the question ‘Why do people smoke’ looks pointless: it would seem that we already know the answer - people smoke because they are addicted to nicotine. However, such an idea is almost tautological: it could be translated to mean that smokers habitually use tobacco because they are habitually using tobacco. This neat little answer isn’t really an answer at all: it’s a way of thinking about smoking that is, in fact, comparatively recent to the history of smoking, at least when viewed in the long-term.

He concludes: “ Put simply what I find is that, over the long term there has been a shift in the use of tobacco to ‘lose control’, and a move towards its use as a means of self-control. That is to say, over the long term, the development of tobacco use has been characterized by a move away from the use of tobacco to ‘escape normality’ and towards its use as a ‘tool’ to return to ‘normality’ through the individualized countering or augmentation (by users seeking out predominantly relaxant or stimulant ‘effects’) of feelings, moods, emotional arousal or under-arousal, etc. Such a process is premised on, historically speaking, the consumption of milder and milder strains, species, varieties of tobacco, and modes of consuming these.

“I also find that since its introduction into the West, there has been a move away from the idea that smoking is a mark of sociability at a very general level, and towards the idea of smoking as an isolated, solitary, individual activity, that might only be considered sociable within the context of highly specific groups who, for example, are huddled outside their non-smoking office buildings, sharing cigarettes and mutually timing their ‘fag breaks’. However, what I found really interesting was that, when I analysed the development of smoking at the level of individuals - through looking at smokers’ biographies - there was a similar direction of development to that of the broader general level. That is to say, in microcosm smokers careers’ followed a line of development similar to that of the macro picture of the historical development of smoking in the West.”

· Hughes, J (2003) Learning to Smoke: Tobacco Use in the West, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. ISBN: 0226359107

NOTE TO NEWSDESK: FOR MORE INFORMATION, PLEASE CONTACT DR HUGHES ON 0116 252 5984 or Susan Walker, research secretary, on 0116 252 5979.

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