Philippe Boucher's Rendez-vous with . . . David Courtwright

Rendez-vous with . . . David Courtwright

Author of Forces of Habit : Drugs and the Making of the Modern World
Professor of History at the University of North Florida
Jacksonville, Florida, USA

By Philippe Boucher

Rendez-vous 99
Monday, May 14 , 2001

PB : Thank you David for accepting our rendez-vous.
May I ask you to introduce yourself?

David Courtwright : Tenure has its uses. About ten years ago I decided that I might as well stick my neck out and write big, controversial, theme-driven books. This one, Forces of Habit, is a world history of psychoactive commerce over the past five centuries. It tells the story of the global psychoactive revolution-how people everywhere acquired progressively more potent means of altering their ordinary waking consciousness-and who profited from it.

I'd already written about opiate use in American history (Dark Paradise, Addicts Who Survived). This book required that I bone up on alcohol, tobacco, caffeinated beverages, cannabis, coca, cocaine, and other drugs that became important commodities. I found that these drugs typically began their careers as novel medicines, only to become democratized when mass cultivation and production, often using slave labor, drove prices down. Tobacco, which Europeans once used as a vermifuge and plague-fighter, was no exception.

Q1. How close historically is the relationship between the development of the tobacco industry and advertising? Could such mass production occur without mass advertising?

DC:In the early modern era mass production could and did occur without systematic advertising. Chesapeake tobacco production rose from about 2,000 lbs. in 1616 to 40,000,000 lbs. per year in the 1730s. Yet we know that the spread of tobacco use, especially smoking, in seventeenth-century Europe was more a matter of word-of-mouth and emulation than slick advertising. Sailors or soldiers fighting abroad would acquire the practice, for example, and bring it back to their home towns.

In more recent times mass production and mass advertising have been closely connected. It's no accident that James Duke, who acquired the first efficient cigarette manufacturing machines, also took tobacco advertising to a whole new level. Duke could potentially make far more cigarettes than he could sell; hence he had to expand the market. Advertising was one obvious strategy. The other was overseas expansion, particularly into the Asia market.

Q2. How would you describe the relationships between the tobacco industry and government? Has the tobacco industry ever been subjected -yet- to strict regulations ?

DC:It's hard to generalize about hundreds of governments over hundreds of years. In broad terms there were three stages of regulation. In stage one government and clerical officials discouraged and punished the nonmedical use of tobacco, especially by smoking. (Some of the seventeenth-century punishments involved torture, mutilation, and ritual execution, all of which reasonably fall under the heading of "strict regulations.") In stage two governments bowed to tobacco's popularity and switched to taxation rather than repression. In Europe, especially, tobacco became a crucial source of government revenue. In stage three, roughly the last forty years, many governments had second thoughts about tobacco, especially cigarette smoking. They legislated various schemes (advertising bans, warning labels, no-smoking zones) to discourage consumption and minimize ETS in the name of public health. But are these regulations "strict" in comparison to those governing other licit psychoactive drugs? Well, you have to have a prescription to buy an antidepressant, but not cigarettes. On the other hand, you can advertise antidepressants on television, but not cigarettes. So it really depends on which category of regulation-and which country-you're talking about.

Q3. As far as public health is concerned, does history support the possibility of a responsible behavior by the tobacco industry (as they now try to portray themselves, as responsible in a controversial business)?

DC:Little in the historical record since the early 1950s, when the cancer studies reached critical mass, supports the notion of responsible behavior by the tobacco industry. The big American and British tobacco companies plainly hired public-relations specialists to dampen health concerns; they recruited young smokers to replace older smokers who died or quit; and they aggressively sought to expand sales in developing nations as domestic consumption leveled off.

The industry's problems, however, go beyond questionable past conduct. The more basic problem is that its products, above all cigarettes, are inherently dangerous. Makers of pharmaceuticals like Valium can say, if you use our product in prescribed amounts under the care of a licensed physician, you'll be OK. Makers of alcoholic beverages can say, plausibly, if you use our product moderately and responsibly, you'll be OK. But there really is no safe or responsible way to use cigarettes, which are both highly addictive and toxic. True, nicotine and related drugs may have important applications in treating diseases like schizophrenia. The truly "responsible" thing for the industry to do would be to close down its smoking-products lines and concentrate on nicotine as medicine, or perhaps extract nicotine for patches to help people wean themselves from tobacco. But such a reformed industry would be only a fraction of its present size. Millions of people around the world would lose their livelihoods. This is the main reason the industry has survived, despite the accumulated health evidence.

Q4 . How do you explain the difference of legal status between tobacco and cannabis?

DC:Cannabis is a folk drug that, in the course of the twentieth century, also became an important countercultural drug. Its association with lower-class, marginal, and deviant groups hasn't exactly helped its legal standing. But the single most important reason is size differential. Worldwide, tobacco users outnumber cannabis users by roughly eight-to-one. One-third of the adults on the planet smoke tobacco, which gives the industry enormous political clout and financial resources. So does the fact that, at least until very recently, many of the world's political leaders indulged in tobacco, though not cannabis. To some degree drug policy follows the leaders' personal habits.

Q5. Don't you think "Forces of Habit" overstates (as a title) the individual while the content of your book mostly exposes as central forces corporate greed and corporate power?

DC:That's a fair point. The original title was actually "Drug World," which left out the role of the individual altogether. But I like to think that the current title has a double meaning. It refers to the political and economic "forces" that shape our habits, as well as the force of individual habits themselves.

The book doesn't lay the global psychoactive revolution entirely at the feet of merchants and capitalists. Political elites also played a crucial role, by deciding to tax certain substances rather than ban them, by colonial land policies that encouraged drug-crop cultivation, by permitting the slave trade, and so on. The whole last part of the book, in fact, is devoted to two mysteries. The first is easy to state but hard to resolve. If political elites were so keen on encouraging (and taxing) the trade on tobacco and other drugs, why, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, did they have second thoughts and begin restricting or even prohibiting drug commerce? The second mystery, as your fourth questions implies, is why they restricted or prohibited some drug commodities (e.g., opium, cannabis), but not others. It's a fascinating historical puzzle.

Q6. Is there anything else you would like to add?

DC:Just a link to Harvard University Press, which has more information about the book:

PB: Thank you David for taking the time to be with us today.

Rendez-vous is supported by a contract from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
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