Tobacco was a mainstay of Enlightenment thought and commerce. Its position in many 'New World' societies contrasts with the opprobrium in which it is held in global public health circles today. This panel considers the dual potential of this plant for enlightenment and destruction.
Tobacco was a mainstay of the intellectual discussions which took place in the coffee shops and drinking houses of the Scottish Enlightenment. Its burgeoning position as a 'New World' commodity was an important prop to the free trade, capitalist interests which the Enlightenment propagated. The story of tobacco in Europe, from its 17th century arrival and early exploitation to its contemporary industrial-level production and distribution under the control of transnational corporate and state-owned institutions, contrasts markedly with the ways in which it has been produced and used across millennia by indigenous populations in South and North America and other parts of the world. Amongst many such groups, tobacco is frequently regarded as akin to a master plant, a blessing from the gods that is both an essential element in the negotiation of relations with the spirit world and a source of everyday health and wellbeing. These ideas are echoed in the accounts of some western smokers, including artists and intellectuals, about why they still smoke. Such views differ radically from the negative ways in which tobacco is portrayed in contemporary global public health discourses, as a product which is both stigmatizing to its consumers and destructive to human health and happiness. With the prospect of it causing 1 billion premature deaths in the coming century, 80% of them in lower income countries, the papers in this panel will consider the dual characteristics of the tobacco plant - its potential as an agent of both enlightenment and destruction.