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Why did King James I think that smoking tobacco was a dangerous habit?

Lesson Images

Tobacco Counterblast

King James, His Counterblast to Tobacco, London, Printed for J. Hancock, 1672, Accession GT3020 .J35 1672a, Special Collections, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia. (Transcription)

King James, His Counterblast to Tobacco, London, Printed for J. Hancock, 1672, Accession GT3020 .J35 1672a, Special Collections, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia. (Transcription)

Standards Of Learning

VS.1, VS.4

Historical Information:

Before tobacco became a major cash crop for England and its colonies, many people viewed it as a major social problem in European society. Europeans had been exposed to tobacco as early as 1560 and used it primarily as medicine. At the time people believed that tobacco treated or cured many illnesses, such as headaches, stomach problems, coughs, epilepsy, and cancer. In the following decades, tobacco use among Europeans dramatically increased, not only for medicinal use but also for recreation. For many rulers in Europe, including King James I, tobacco smoking represented a major social and health problem. English leaders did not make the sale and smoking of tobacco illegal, although many other European countries did, including France, Russia, Sweden, and Switzerland. Instead, King James I tried hard to reduce tobacco usage, even to the point of instituting in 1604 a tax on tobacco of six shillings and eight pence to the existing two shillings per pound tax; this was an increase of 4,000 percent. The price increase, however, did little to reduce English demand for the “noxious weed.”

The attitude of the king and members of England's ruling classes changed when tobacco became a cash crop for its colonies. During the early years of English exploration and settlement of North America, only a nominal amount of tobacco was cultivated and exported. For that reason, in 1604, when King James issued this statement, the main suppliers of tobacco to the English were foreign shippers, particularly Spain. Not until the 1620s did the English colonies of Virginia and Maryland began to grow and export significant quantities. Accepting the inevitable King James decided the Crown might as well cash in on the popularity of tobacco and the state took control of the industry. Ironically, tobacco cultivation would lay the foundation for the success of England's American colonies. 

This lesson is based on two images. One is the title page of a 1672 reprint of King James I's famous Counterblast to Tobacco, an essay he wrote in 1604 about the evils of tobacco. The second image shows the concluding passages from the same document, which includes the most famous quotation from this tract: “a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to theNose, harmful to the brain, and dangerous to the Lungs.” Another document, entitled “Selected Excerpts from Tobacco Counterblast,” is a supplement to the images and provides more of the language from the original publication.

Lesson Activities

Vocabulary Words:

• adust —dried out or browned because of heat

• antidote—an agent that counteracts a poison

• aphorism—a short statement of truth or principle

• canker—ulceration of the mouth or lips

• cholic—from or concerning bile

• complexion—the make-up of the body; a person's physical nature

• contrarious—difficult; unfavorable

• distillations—the evaporation of liquid and subsequent condensation and collection of the vapors as a means of purification or of extraction of a volatile component

• gluttony—the act of eating and consuming enormous amounts

• malady—illness or sickness

• omnipotency—having unlimited power

• palpitation—the rapid beating of the heart

• phlegm—thick, sticky, stringy mucous produced in the respiratory track

• preservative—something used to protect from injury or peril

• purge—to purify and rid oneself of defilement

• rheums—a watery mucous discharge from the eyes or nose

• stygian—hellish; dark and gloomy

• suffumigation—the application of fumes or smoke

• sundry—miscellaneous

• venime—poison; venom

Lesson Ideas:

• How were Europeans first exposed to tobacco?

• Tobacco has been an important industry in the United States. Trace its history through the years.

• What else is King James I known for? Trace the history of his reign and his major impacts on society and history.

• Discuss government regulation of tobacco. Argue for or against legalizing other drugs since tobacco and alcohol are both legal. Assign sides and hold a debate.

• Compare and contrast King James I's Counterblast to a modern-day Surgeon General's warning on tobacco and smoking. Today the emphasis is on the damage the drug does to a person's body and health. While King James certainly touched on that, he appealed more to people's sense of morality and vanity in trying to get them to quit.

• Research antismoking campaigns from the 20th century until present times. Were any effective? Why or why not? Design your own anti-smoking campaign.

Research and Discussion Questions:

Questions From “Selected excerpts” document:

1. What does Section II reveal about the understanding of the human body and medicine in the 17th century? How does this differ from what we know today about how the body works?

2. In Sections I, IV, and V, King James I places blame for both the infiltration of tobacco smoking into English culture, and for the continued promotion of its use as a medicine. Who does he blame? How would you characterize these criticisms?

3. Based on your reading of Section V, what is a folk remedy? What folk remedies are still popular today?

4. In Section VI, King James I notes the addictive qualities of tobacco. What other addiction does he compare it to? How does this compare to what we now know about the effects of nicotine on the human body?

5. Compare and contrast the arguments and criticisms presented by King James I and current antismoking campaigns. How are they similar?

Suggested Materials

Best, Joel. “Economic Interests and the Vindication of Deviance: Tobacco in Seventeenth Century Europe.” Sociological Quarterly, 20, no. 2 (Spring 1979): 171–182.

Rive, Alfred. “A Brief History of the Regulation and Taxation of Tobacco in England.” William and Mary Quarterly, 2d ser. vol. 9 no. 2 April 1929.

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