Advice to young men not to smoke

Book Excerpt

Background Notes

This essay appeared in The Young Man's Guide by William A. Alcott (1798-1859), one of the many books of advice literature this prolific author produced during his lifetime.  The first edition was published in 1833, and two years later was already in its sixth edition - indicating its enormous popularity.

Alcott was a physician, health reformer, and proponent of alternative medicine as well as a respected writer.  He was influential in advocating better diets, exercise, and cleanliness for Americans.  He was also important in changing the popular opinion toward alcohol and was a supporter of the Temperance movement. 

In this excerpt on tobacco, Alcott sought to show the harmfulness of tobacco in order to convince readers not to take up the habit.   He noted how large the tobacco industry was, and he provided estimates of its use in the United States, as compared to its use abroad.  He wrote of its narcotic [i.e., addictive] nature and its damaging effects on health, referring to tobacco as "one of the most powerful poisons in nature."

Transcription of Primary Source

SECTION IV. Use of Tobacco

Smoking has every where, in Europe and America, become a tremendous evil; and if we except Holland and Germany, nowhere more so than in this country. Indeed we are already fast treading in the steps of those countries, and the following vivid description of the miseries which this filthy practice entails on the Germans will soon be quite applicable to the people of the United States, unless we can induce the rising generation to turn the current of public opinion against it.

‘This plague, like the Egyptian plague of frogs, is felt every where, and in every thing. It poisons the streets, the clubs, and the coffee-houses; - furniture, clothes, equipage, persons, are redolent of the abomination. It makes even the dulness of the newspapers doubly narcotic; every eatable and drinkable, all that can be seen, felt, heard or understood, is saturated with tobacco; - the very air we breathe is but a conveyance for this poison into the lungs; and every man, woman, and child, rapidly acquires the complexion of a boiled chicken. From the hour of their waking, if nine-tenths of their population can be said to awake at all, to the hour of their lying down, the pipe is never out of their mouths. One mighty fumigation reigns, and human nature is smoked dry by tens of thousands of square miles. The German physiologists compute that of 20 deaths, between eighteen and thirty-five years, 10 originate in the waste of the constitution by smoking.'

This is indeed a horrid picture; but when it is considered that the best estimates which can be made concur in showing that tobacco, to the amount of $16,000,000 is consumed in the United States annually, and that by far the greater part of this is smoking cigars, there is certainly room for gloomy apprehensions. What though we do not use the dirty pipe of the Dutch and Germans? If we only use the tobacco, the mischief is effectually accomplished. Perhaps it were even better that we should lay out a part of our money for pipes, than to spend the whole for tobacco.

Smoking is indecent, filthy, and rude, and to many individuals highly offensive. When first introduced into Europe, in the 16th century, its use was prohibited under very severe penalties, which in some countries amounted even to cutting off the nose. And how much better is the practice of voluntarily burning up our noses, by making a chimney of them? I am happy, however, in being able to state, that this unpardonable practice is now abandoned in many of the fashionable societies in Europe.

There is one remarkable fact to be observed in speaking on this subject. No parent ever teaches his child the use of tobacco, or even encourages it, except by his example. Thus the smoker virtually condemns himself in the very ‘thing which he alloweth.' It is not precisely so in the case of spirits; for many parents directly encourage the use of that.

Tobacco is one of the most powerful poisons in nature. Even the physician, some of whose medicines are so active that a few grains, or a few drops, will destroy life at once, finds tobacco too powerful for his use; and in those cases where it is most clearly required, only makes it a last resort. Its daily use, in any form, deranges, and sometimes destroys the stomach and nerves, produces weakness, low spirits, dyspepsy, vertigo, and many other complaints. These are its more immediate effects.

Its remoter effects are scarcely less dreadful. It dries the mouth and nostrils, and probably the brain; benumbs the senses of smell and taste, impairs the hearing, and ultimately the eye-sight. Germany, a smoking nation, is at the same time, a spectacled nation. More than all this; it dries the blood; creates thirst and loss of appetite; and in this and other ways, often lays the foundation of intemperance. In fact, not a few persons are made drunkards by this very means. Dr. Rush has a long chapter on this subject in one of his volumes, which is well worth your attention. In addition to all this, it has often been observed that in fevers and other diseases, medicines never operate well in constitutions which have been accustomed to the use of tobacco.

Of the expense which the use of it involves, I have already spoken. Of the $16,000,000 thus expended, $9,000,000 are supposed to be for smoking Spanish cigars; $6,500,000 for smoking American tobacco, and for chewing it; and $500,000 for snuff.

Although many people of real intelligence become addicted to this practice, as is the case especially among the learned in Germany, yet it cannot be denied that in general, those individuals and nations whose mental powers are the weakest, are (in proportion to their means of acquiring it) most enslaved to it. To be convinced of the truth of this remark, we have only to open our eyes to facts as they exist around us.

All ignorant and savage nations indulge in extraordinary stimulants, (and tobacco among the rest,) whenever they have the means of obtaining them; and in proportion to their degradation. Thus it is with the native tribes of North America; thus with the natives of Africa, Asia, and New Holland; thus with the Cretins and Gypsies. Zimmerman says, that the latter ‘suspended their predatory excursions, and on an appointed evening in every week, assemble to enjoy their guilty spoils in the fumes of strong waters and tobacco.' Here they are represented as indulging in idle tales about the character and conduct of those around them; a statement which can very easily be believed by those who have watched the effects produced by the fumes of stimulating beverages much more ‘respectable' than spirits or tobacco smoke.

The quantity which is used in civilized nations is almost incredibly great. England alone imported, in 1829, 22,400,000 lbs. of unmanufactured tobacco. There is no narcotic plant - not even the tea plant - in such extensive use, unless it is the betel of India and the adjoining countries. This is the leaf of a climbing plant resembling ivy, but of the pepper tribe. The people of the east chew it so incessantly, and in such quantities, that their lips become quite red, and their teeth black - showing that it has affected their whole systems. They carry it about them in boxes, and offer it to each other in compliment, as the Europeans do snuff; and it is considered uncivil and unkind to refuse to accept and chew it. This is done by the women as well as by the men. Were we disposed, we might draw from this fact many important lessons on our own favored stimulants.

In view of the great and growing evil of smoking, the practical question arises; ‘What shall be done?' The answer is - Render it unfashionable and disreputable. Do you ask, ‘How is this to be accomplished?' Why, how has alcohol been rendered unpopular? Do you still say, ‘One person alone cannot effect much?' But so might any person have said a few years ago, in regard to spirits. Individuals must commence the world of reformation in the one case, as well as in the other; and success will then be equally certain.


Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
The Young Man's Guide
Alcott, William A.
Samuel Colman, successor to Lilly, Wait, & Co.
Place of Publication: 
Boston, Massachusetts
16 cm.
American Antiquarian Society
Catalog Code: 
G360 A355 Y835 6th ed. copy 1