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Learning to smoke: tobacco use in the West
  1. C Hooker
  1. claireh{at}

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    By J Hughes, University of Chicago Press, 2003, US$27.00, 216 pages, ISBN 0226359107

    Learning to smoke

    It is a sign of the stature and maturity of tobacco control that it has become a mine for sociologists intent on “making strange” our background assumptions about smoking and public health responses to it. Hughes’ book Learning to smoke is written to counter the vision of smoking as essentially just a vehicle for nicotine self administration. As he says, this explanation misses almost all of what makes smoking attractive and interesting, and fails to explain the many differences in methods of “nicotine self administration” both now and in the past. Hughes insists that there is nothing biologically determined about the experience of smoking itself. Rather, one learns how to smoke—how to make sense of and respond to the physical sensations and cultural cues that accompany it.

    The first two thirds of the book are occupied with a brief history of smoking from European contact with America onwards. This narrative serves as the vehicle for Hughes’ central argument, which is that changes in tobacco use can be read through the lens of Norbert Elias’ theory of the “civilising process”, the trend in western societies towards self restraint as a means of government. Hughes describes how tobacco, once an intoxicant used to lose control, over the centuries has been consumed in increasingly milder forms and in “more highly controlled, formal, differentiated, private and individualized ways” (p 77, emphasis in original). Where native American men ritualistically smoked to the point of fits and unconsciousness, among Europeans the practice soon became a means of exercising self control by modifying mood, supplementing other activities (such as work), and expressing individual identity.

    Civilised smoking

    The cigarette was the ultimate expression of this trend. Made possible by increasingly mild tobacco, it could be adapted to fulfil ever more specialised emotional, psychological, and social functions, while the identity functions of smoking were commodified through branding and marketing. Its rise coincided with that of a new medical understanding of smoking (part, says Hughes, of the “clinical gaze” theorised by Michel Foucault) that produced and is reinforced by the tobacco control movement of the late 20th century. In the final third of the book, Hughes uses a series of interviews to argue each person’s “smoking career” follows a similar trajectory to the historical development of smoking. As “beginners”, smokers are most concerned with loss of control, intoxication, and with smoking as a marker to others (“I’m a grown up!”); as “continuing” and “regular”, smokers use tobacco as a highly particularised means of self expression and self control (to mark mood, aid work, feel sexy, etc); as “addicts” and “stopping smokers”, tobacco users experience smoking in terms of the “dominant medicalised paradigm” of addiction.

    I found Hughes’ devotion to what was essentially a linear master narrative throughout the book intriguing, but in the end dissatisfying. It was nifty to see how tobacco smoking could be used to support Elias’ theory, but this (highly reductionist) view often seemed forced on the data. For example, I was not necessarily convinced that the Kuruk native Americans were significantly different to Europeans three centuries of the “civilising process” later, for while practices of smoking had altered, the three major categories of function that smoking fulfilled, and which Hughes nominates as products of the civilising process—controlling feeling states, expressing social cues, and facilitating socialisation—(according to my reading of his evidence), had not.

    Under researched

    The problem of oversimplification is worsened because the book is severely under researched. The historical sections are drawn almost entirely from Jordan Goodman’s excellent Tobacco in history: cultures of dependence plus one or two other works, and lack a convincing depth of analysis. The more interesting interview based chapter about smokers’ own beliefs about their habit—a topic that has received less attention than it might among tobacco control advocates—was limited by its friends-of-friends methodology. I suggest that additional interesting questions—for example, about ethnicity, smoking, and the construction of (a “civilised”) identity—might have been raised with a more considered (not necessarily narrowly “positivist”/randomised) approach.

    Finally, although I would agree that addiction is a dominant discourse through which smoking is currently understood, it is not the only one. Hughes seems inexcusably oblivious that for decades Quit campaigns have offered far more than substitute nicotine delivery methods precisely because countless feminists, sociologists of class, psychologists, behavioural therapists, and health advocates have recognised that nicotine addiction is not something that operates simplistically or in isolation from social and emotional circumstances. Anyone professionally involved in tobacco control and familiar with the longstanding debates about the use of scare tactics, etc, will find the policy suggestions with which Learning to smoke concludes merely facile. So in the end Hughes raises many more questions than he solves; and I hope his book will encourage him and other sociologists to continue their endeavours of “making strange”, only with an increasing engagement with the world under critique.