The Freedom to Smoke: Tobacco consumption and identity - by Rudy, J.
Article first published online: 14 JUL 2008
© 2008 The Authors. Journal compilation © 2008 Foundation for the Sociology of Health & Illness/Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Sociology of Health & Illness
Volume 30, Issue 5, pages 808–809, July 2008
How to Cite
Waterhouse, R. (2008), The Freedom to Smoke: Tobacco consumption and identity - by Rudy, J. Sociology of Health & Illness, 30: 808–809. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9566.2008.01099_4.x
- Issue published online: 14 JUL 2008
- Article first published online: 14 JUL 2008
The Freedom to Smoke: Tobacco consumption and identity . Montreal : McGill-Queen's University Press , 2007 x + 232pp . £17.95 IBSN 0-7735-2911-X (pbk)
The social history of tobacco consumption and production is still waiting to be fully documented. It is significant, as this book makes clear, that the ill health associated with smoking was recognised in the late nineteenth century yet many Western societies have subjected this particular form of drug taking to relatively modest regulation. In the UK smoking in the public sphere has recently been outlawed and the ban seems to be generally observed and accepted. Globally, however, smoking related fatalities remain high and young people, in particular, still adopt smoking as a part of their lifestyles and coping strategies. The social reaction to tobacco usage has therefore been highly complex. Jarrett Rudy has succeeded in producing a scholarly and timely account of its cultural significance for and impact on Montreal life from the late nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century. This text is representative of the best kind of social history: one which combines in-depth historical research with the insights of sociology and cultural studies. Rudy takes one cultural activity, smoking tobacco, and uses it as a foil to explore the many social divisions which characterised Canada in the period. Through his detailed and always engaging account of this practice we are brought to a greater understanding of not only the diverse meanings attached to a particular drug habit but also its significance for the divisions of class, race, gender and religion. Nor does he neglect consideration of what tobacco use has to tell us about the division between rural and urban life.
Rudy shows how tobacco and the nuances surrounding its tasteful (or otherwise) consumption reflected fine gradations in social standing and position. Only certain types of cigars, for instance, conferred respectable status upon the consumer. The paraphernalia surrounding the use of the drug enabled the individual to legitimate their claim to a particular social identity-sophisticated urbanite or rural backwoodsman, for example. Rudy shows that as consumer culture began to develop apace in nineteenth century Canada the ideal consumer was socially constructed as being the epitome of the ideals of liberal individualism. He (for the consumer was represented as unequivocally male) was a rational being with discerning taste and the ability to make informed and discriminating choices in terms of his luxuries and pleasures. What he purchased and where he bought it were highly significant. So too was the place of consumption. His ability to access public and leisured space conferred prestige.
As Rudy shows, however, the ideologies surrounding the middle class, male consumer did not go uncontested. His power to move within the public sphere, smoking at will, was subject to vehement and often organised opposition. This came particularly from the non conformist traditions within Protestantism but it was not confined to those with religious motivations. There was opposition from those concerned with the health of the nation, particularly in the build -up to World War 1 when it was imperative to have recruits fit for battle. Opposition also arose from groups of women who challenged those male privileges which enabled men to pollute the public sphere with impunity. Tobacco therefore became the symbol of a contested terrain which expressed deep underlying tensions between the sexes. But not all women wished to curtail smoking. Many wished to push for their right to be included in the category of the rational consumer and exercise their right as citizens to smoke. One of the most interesting chapters details how the smoking of cigarettes gradually became more normalised for women.
Throughout the book Rudy illustrates his account with pertinent contemporary images. Those showing how the tobacco companies dealt with the issue of gender are fascinating. The companies had to be adept at reading the subtle, gendered meanings surrounding tobacco use whilst attempting to expand the consumption of the drug amongst women. Rudy describes how the growing acceptance of cigarette smoking for women after World War 1 was a complex process attributable to the activities not only of women themselves but to the marketing ploys of the major manufacturers.
This book will appeal to anyone who appreciates social history combined with a sociological imagination. It will also be of interest to health care practitioners who wish to learn more about the history of one of our hardest drugs. The political conflicts and health concerns surrounding tobacco have not been resolved. Smokers and non smokers alike will find in Rudy's work an erudite account of how some of these conflicts first arose.