Tobacco: Gift From the Great Spirit or Global Epidemic?

June 02, 2008
Harold Bergsma

Blame it all on the Indians, the American Indians, that is. They were smoking when the pilgrims arrived. Histories about tobacco state that the weed grew and was used in the Americas as early as 600 B.C. It is well documented through artifacts that the ancient Mayans smoked tobacco as far back as 470 A.D. In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and ‘discovered’ tobacco. Americus Vespucci, for whom the Americas are named, wrote about the natives use of tobacco and that it was a very “curious habit” of inhaling smoke from a pipe and blowing it out again. They are still at it! Tobacco was considered a rare and special gift and was used medicinally and ritually by the native people of the Americas. It was considered a gift from the Great Spirit.

The American Lung Association report of 2007, “Smoking and American Indians/Alaska Natives Fact Sheet” presents some current, interesting facts about the use of tobacco. “Among racial and ethnic groups, the prevalence of current smoking is highest among American Indians/Alaska Natives (32%). Also, ”American Indian lands are sovereign nations and are not subject to state taxes or laws prohibiting the sale and promotion of tobacco products to minors. As a result, American Indian youth have access to cheap tobacco products at a young age. Tobacco is also considered a sacred gift and it is used during religious ceremonies and as a traditional medicine.” Then, “Chronic cigarette smoking and spit tobacco use increases their risk of developing tobacco-related health problems. Tobacco use is a risk factor for heart disease, cancer and stroke, all leading causes of death among American Indians and Alaska Natives. And… “In 2004 American Indian women had the highest rate of smoking during pregnancy (18.2%). This 2007 report indicated that as smoking declined among white populations, “…tobacco companies targeted American Indians… by funding cultural events such as powwows and rodeos to build its image and credibility in the community.”

In the early colonial days of the new world, the explorers and settlers took up the pipe, perhaps what the movies love to call the peace pipe, and got hookah-ed. They became addicted with the cursed weed. Its use created such a high that the colonialists decided to bring tobacco to Europe in 1558. It became a smoking disaster, a kind of ‘ashes to ashes’ thing. But back then lighting up was a sign of high fashion, sophistication. Even the women began to puff. Smoking tobacco was done openly. Somehow a smoke filled room brought on a feeling of authority, mystery, and it was here that business deals were spawned. Early European governments decided to make money on tobacco import and taxed it heavily. King James I, well known for his version of the Bible (1611), is well known for imposing staggering taxes on tobacco imports, some historians say, 4000%, and not to curtail its use, per se, but to benefit from the cash flow into the government’s kingly coffers.

Leap forward in time. In 2008, millions of Asian Indians are smoking themselves to death. They can thank sailors who took the weed to various ports of the world; colonial settlers carried with them the seeds for change, to places like Goa and Sri Lanka which became hot-houses for growing tobacco. Within a century the Indian continent was enjoying the pleasures of the weed. For some reason, smoking, whether you were a rajah or a coolie, went well with a cup of chai, smoking relieved the sweating laborer pulling a rickshaw, it gave endurance to the koila wallahs staggering up the steep Landour hills carrying elongated baskets of charcoal larger than themselves, wheezing and grunting at each awful, laborious and trembling step while smoking; smoking enhanced social gatherings of the wealthy, the drinking of alcohol, smoking began to replace a desert after a good meal; smoking was Kool with a brandy held in one hand as the sahib log met alone on the verandah or in the drawing room while the women gossiped, (is that what they do?) and supervised the bearers who cleaned up the dishes. Smoking was for everyone including our chowkidar who sneaked around quietly on the compound with bare feet; but we always knew where he was because he smoked bidis.

Opium was a world problem, but soon was eclipsed by the tobacco epidemic which became the biggest killer by far. Imagine a silent war that would kill eight million people, annually! Tobacco, as we read this, is doing just that. “…tobacco is the only legally available consumer product which kills people if it is used as intended.” (The Oxford Medical Companion, 1994.) Tobacco, and its ability to create addiction rapidly, (some say after two cigarettes) is presently a global epidemic, and China and India have the highest addiction rates, together representing almost forty one percent of the world’s total use of tobacco. If only just the rich and influential smoked in India, it would not be such a huge problem. Those people have good medical care and when they get cancer, they have the funds to pay the medical costs and to provide care for survivors through savings accounts, life insurance and stock portfolios. But those already in poverty are doubly damned by their use of tobacco. The net economic effect to them when they use tobacco deepens their poverty. The costs are staggering in lost lives, lost labor and lost income. The poor are disproportionately hurt by tobacco because the lowest income group has the highest tobacco use rate. Bangladesh’s poorest households spend ten times as much on tobacco as they do on education. Pakistan is not far behind. Bidis are cheap poison.

The 2008 WHO “Report on Global Tobacco Epidemic” is clearly written with wonderful charts and graphs which reveal a tragedy of immense proportions globally. Time Magazine, Vol. 171, No. 10/ 2008 also presents the problem graphically with the use of a huge cigarette which shows which countries use the most tobacco. The above-mentioned report states, “If global trends continue, by 2030 more than 8 million people will die each year from tobacco related causes—80% of them in the developing world. Among other things, a new study finds that in India, where 120 million smoke, and 5 cents buys 10 small cigarettes called bidis, 1 in 5 men will die from smoking.”

How they got that statistic, that only 120 million Indians smoke is unclear, the number seems larger than that to me, but let that be. I can unscientifically state that during my various visits and residencies to India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, I was amazed at how many people smoked. I was amazed at how many public establishments allowed the use of tobacco, considering what we know from research about second-hand tobacco’s effects on people. Can you see the shop keepers, squatting and smoking their hookahs? Or the subzi wallahs (vegetable sellers) in Mumbai, smoking bidis? ( If I smelled that odor today I would turn my head to track it down. )

Bidis! There is nothing like a reformed, old sinner to get on the case of those who are still sinning. ‘One can always find dirt if one digs deep enough,’ one of my critics wrote recently. Confession is good for the soul. I was once addicted to bidis. What a wonderful invention they are. Pure, strong tobacco, no paper wrappings, nicely shaped and so very cheap and perhaps lethal. As a high school student residing in Mussoorie I would sneak off with my buddies to indulge in a smoke, sitting in a quiet corner in utter contentment as the nicotine raised the levels of our already raging life urges and hormones. That was a beginning for me, and yes, the fault this time, goes to a real, pukka Indian, our cook, Caseru, who smoked bidis and was happy to share his habit with me. That introduction to strong tobacco lasted another twenty years before I was finally, happily and permanently was able to shake the ‘dirty habit’ as my wife and my mother would say.

Global Epidemic! Yes, and the problem is that about 70 % of those addicted and who are going to die from tobacco related causes, reside in ‘developing’ countries. Worldwide, tobacco companies now target developing countries with their effective sales pitches; and what disturbs me greatly is that the new target population group that is being influenced is young women. This trend is something new. Usually women had enough sense not to smoke, culturally it was considered to be unsuitable for women to do so. Now? Now it is the new rage, girls are learning to smoke and join their men, puffing away. In America girls are the taking up this habit with a passion. This tragedy will change the statistics in the next ten years. Rates of cancer deaths from tobacco use, cancer, will increase tremendously as a whole new group becomes addicted. Tobacco is the only legally available consumer product, that is if used properly, as intended, will kill millions of people in India, with an increasing percentage of them being girls.

What is the answer? What is the solution? How can this epidemic be stemmed? Or, as one snide cynic asked, is there even a need for a solution? Is this an evolutionary mechanism at play in the global ‘survival of the fittest’ game? People who have addictive personalities will die off. (Bad logic, they reproduce at a young age and pass it on.) Perhaps they meant, oh well, there are too many of the poor addicted blighters anyway.

India is not alone. China has an even greater problem. America is experiencing a disturbing trend. Young women and girls are taking up smoking at an alarming rate, while the American population at large, is actually reducing its use of tobacco.

Unfortunately, the poor, the illiterate, the unsophisticated, the unschooled are the hardest people to influence; quoting statistics at them won’t help. National legislation? Heavy taxation on tobacco products or their producers? Prohibition of advertising on television, bill boards and the radio? Education may be the answer. Wherever there are schools where young people meet, the facts about the tobacco epidemic can be taught. But the curriculum will have to be presented by teachers who are not smoking ‘secretly’ on their break in the staff room. Perhaps that is a good starting point; the teachers.

The WHO report I mentioned above is a very fine document. Unfortunately few people will ever read it. Answers about how to solve the problem of Asia’s increasing tobacco use are being sought by responsible people in the world community. It may take a generation to create changes among those already addicted. Young people need to be informed. We worry about the deaths that would occur if atomic bombs were used in the Indian sub-continent. We already have a slow-fused devastation occurring of gigantic proportions that needs to be addressed by all, the politicians, scientists, religious leaders and journalists. This is an area of ‘development’ that must be addressed, now.

The American Indians really started something that was lethal, strange and dreadful that Indians have adopted; a killer in their streets, a rampant mad dog that can only be dealt with in one way, dispatch.

Harold Bergsma has published widely in professional journals, and novels. In 2007, One Way To Pakistan was published and in April of 2007 was awarded the Indie Excellence Award for Multicultural Fiction.
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Tobacco: Gift From the Great Spirit or Global Epidemic?


Author: Harold Bergsma


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Chip Bergsma
June 2, 2008
09:06 PM

Very interesting. URA, a really ridiculous group here at Saginaw Valley, attacked SVSU's new, more limiting smoking policy as "discriminatory towards our Asian and Arab exchange students." This article nicely condemns the cultural right to destroy one's self.
One question: you stated that the uneducated and unsophisticated are the hardest to influence, yet they make easy targets for advertisement. Perhaps they are a hard audience for reasonable constraint of their compulsive desires, and sitting ducks to any confirmation that indulgence is totally acceptable.
Bravo, sir.

June 3, 2008
02:13 AM

Bravo, yes. Bravo to Chip too.

It is easy to start an addiction. To end it takes blood, sweat and tears, to paraphrase Winston Churchill.

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