On Tobacco

Baltimore Evening Sun/October 10, 1910

The Tongue Of The Dog

The school physiology books teach that nicotine is one of the worst of poisons and that one drop of it, placed upon the tongue of a dog, will dispatch the beast like a bolt of lightning. Like many other things taught in schools, these statements are a good deal more dramatic than true and a good deal more true than relevant. As a matter of fact, very few sane men ever use nicotine as a beverage and very few dogs ever get it on their tongues. In the act of smoking tobacco, upon which the artillery of the physiology books is presumably concentrated, the amount of nicotine introduced into the system is so small that it has no deleterious toxic effect whatever. One may denounce the use of tobacco as a waste of money, or as an offense to the circumambient public, or as an incentive to idleness and unlawful happiness, but one may not denounce it as dangerous to life and limb. The smoker, indeed, is a ten-times better risk, as the insurance men say, than the poor fellow whose wife is a fryer.

And yet the old balderdash lives on. Preaching against tobacco has a satisfying and virtuous smack. It is an attack upon a peculiarly agreeable form of pleasure, and all pleasures, as we know, are of evil all compact. The thoroughly moral man avoids them as he would the pestilence. He can get all of the stimulation he needs out of contemplating his own lack of need for it. The fact that the schoolbook foolishness about drops of nicotine and dogs’ tongues is irrelevant and silly is not permitted to interfere with the crusade. Neither is the fact that smokers are notoriously as healthy as non-smokers. Neither is the fact that most sane men, if they could choose between smoking all their lives and living 12 days longer, would infallibly reach out for the weed.

Expert Testimony

But there is no need to make any such brave choice. The effect of tobacco upon the healthy adult has been investigated of late by men thoroughly capable of coming to a sound decision and that decision pronounces smoking an entirely harmless operation. In Great Britain a royal commission, after an inquiry of a most searching sort, has laid down the doctrine that no normal man is ever injured in the slightest by smoking half a dozen cigars a day. In the United States, the Journal of the American Medical Association, after examining all the evidence brought into court by the foes of the weed, has come to the conclusion that “there is no scientific evidence that the moderate use of tobacco by healthy, mature men produces any beneficial or injurious physical effects that can be measured.” In other words, tobacco is as inert in its effects as chewing gum or breakfast food.

It is perfectly true, of course, that this testimony relates only to the healthy adult, and not to the boy of 14. Smoking among children is obviously to be discouraged, not so much because tobacco is poisonous as because the smokers are children. The child, being an incomplete animal, is to that extent an unhealthy animal, just as much so as an adult without perfect sight, perfect hearing, a sound stomach and a reasonable intelligence. One does not expect a boy of 9 or 10 to do a man’s work in the world, and so it is unfair to expect him to withstand the shock of a grown man’s relaxations, and doubly unfair to blame those relaxations for his lack of strength to weather them. It would seriously injure a boy of that age to sit up until 2 A.M. playing poker, or to serve on a Downs jury, or to read a President’s message, or to have a mother-in-law at his heels, and yet grown men go through all of these appalling adventures without apparent harm. In the same way, they smoke and chew tobacco without harm, though the enterprise would flabbergast a boy.

Why Do Boys Smoke?

Even at that, the physiological effect of tobacco upon the young is probably much exaggerated. Observing the fact that, in the average school, the more stupid boys are those who smoke, superficial observers are apt to jump to the conclusion that smoking is the cause of that stupidity. The error here may be the very common one of confusing cause and effect. May it not be true that it is the stupid boys who smoke and not the boy smokers who are stupid? Every man who has been a schoolboy is well aware of the boyish attitude toward smoking. Boys smoke, not because they like it—as a matter of fact, it usually makes them uncomfortable, if not downright sick—or because they have a grown man’s need of sedatives, but because the act is regarded, among them, as something rather devilish. The boy smoker, in brief, takes on that same romantic and satanic glamour which invests the boy who defies the teacher, throws away his books, wears a geography cover within the rear elevation of his pantaloons, pulls the pigtails of the girls and swears like a marine.

The fact that a boy is a good student is pretty safe evidence that he takes learning seriously, and the fact that he takes it seriously is enough to make him esteem its acquirement above the acquirement of a reputation for criminality. The dull boy and the lazy boy cannot hope to shine as masters of the binomial theorem. Therefore they laugh at the fame which is beyond their reach, and proceed to acquire fame of another sort. Some of them go in for football. Others go in for the arts of the social butterfly. Yet others decide to be pirates. Practically all puff upon the ostentatious cigarette, that malodorous symbol of the adolescent outlaw.

Smoking And Scholarship

Not long ago Dr. George L. Meylan of Columbia University investigated the use of tobacco among the young gentlemen drinking knowledge from that Pierian spring. He found, for one thing, that “the smokers participated in larger proportion than the non-smokers in athletics and in fraternity membership.” The result, naturally enough, was that “the scholarship records of smokers, both athletes and fraternity members alike, were lower than those of other students.” Well, one does not look for scholarship among football players and badge wearers of a college. A boy who goes in for football is, nine times out of ten, a boy with a constitutional antipathy to logarithms. A favorite of the fraternities is—a favorite of the fraternities.

(Source: University of North Texas Microfilm Collection)

 The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.