“Noxious Weed,” The Anti-tobacco Movement in Early America

tobacco coin

“Noxious Weed:” The Anti-Tobacco Movement in Early America

An anti-tobacco movement began to emerge in America after the Revolutionary War. Even then the effort was a small, ill-formed weed often lost in the fields of other reformist movements. One historian has called it the “uncertain little sister of the anti-liquor crusade.”

The initial animus towards tobacco was—and continued to be throughout the first half of the 19th century— mainly based on “moral” grounds, not primarily because of health concerns. Tobacco, filtered through the unsoiled souls of most reformers, was viewed as the ally or henchman of “evil rum.” The two, drink and nicotine, were see as the twin sisters of moral decay. To many, tobacco produced a thirst most easily quenched by liquor. And everyone knew where drinking led one……….

The first major anti-tobacco figure to emerge in the United States was the famous and admired Dr. Benjamin Rush, who published an essay bemoaning tobacco use and its pernicious effects in 1798. Though Rush did point out tobacco’s adverse effect on health, the bulk of his essay dealt with its contribution to moral decay.

Though the anti-tobacco movement was not significant nor highly visible during the early decades of the nineteenth century, Rush did beget adherents who cast their tinny voices into the wilderness. Among the most prominent and vocal was the Reverend Orin Fowler, a Massachusetts clergyman who believed temperance would not succeed until tobacco use also ceased. Fowler, who was also a phrenologist, was among those reformers who thought tobacco imbued with erotic aspects (he was neither the first nor the last to hold such beliefs) and saw it a destroyer of inhibitions, which led to the usual horrid consequences of sin.

Fowler sent forth his views in A Disquisition on the Evils of Using Tobacco, probably first published in 1834 or 1835 and widely available throughout the east. His work, which also contained a small section on the effects of tobacco on health, became one of the seminal tracts in the anti-tobacco movement. The few reformers who made tobacco an issue often used Fowler’s book as a guide and inspiration for their work.

The anti-tobacco movement began to tentatively appear in Indiana by the 1830s. Capitol city resident Calvin Fletcher noted in a March 1836 diary entry that a young Indianapolis area Methodist minister named Smith preached a sermon on the evils of “chewing & spitting” tobacco. The exact content of Smith’s sermon is unknown, but it seems likely they reflected those of Fowler. (see below for a list if some of the major arguments against tobacco use)

Anti-tobacco forces gathered strength in the decade before the Civil War. By the mid- 19th century, the anti-tobacco movement was gaining strength, as more people added their voices to a swelling chorus decrying tobacco use. By the 1850s an Anti-Tobacco Tract Depository had been established in Fitchburg, Massachusetts and was selling tracts like the Diary of the Rev. Solomon Spittle, a pastiche telling of the tobacco addiction of a minister and its ravages upon his body, which featured a testimonial from former president John Quincy Adams. Other works were often geared to specific audiences, like the 1862 The Winter School, or, The Boys’ Campaign Against One of Their Worst Enemies, a cautionary tale about tobacco for students to be used by teachers. There was also a change in the content of the warnings as, increasingly, health concerns regarding tobacco use came to the forefront. Activists cited the addictive properties (“an enslaving habit,” according to one of the many tracts dealing with tobacco) and general ill effects on eyesight, circulatory system, and brain.

The movement grew even stronger after the war. Still strongly allied with other reform elements of the period (one of the major reformist works of the period was the memoir of Hoosier Mason Long, whose Mason Long the Converted Gambler told of his battle against the triple addictions of gambling, alcohol and tobacco), the anti-tobacco ranks swelled each year and, like Mason Long, it was not uncommon to see the individuals preaching against multiple sins, often tobacco and alcohol. The different reform movements often mirrored one another. One common element was “taking the pledge” not to use alcohol or tobacco. Temperance workers often gave out ribbons or badges to those promising to abstain from drinking, while anti-tobacco forces often gave children a token that could be worn on a chain if they pledged to never use the “noxious weed.” On one side he token showed a young boy on one side with the words “I will never use tobacco in any form. The obverse contained the message “Tobacco tends to idleness, poverty, strong drink, vice, ill health, insanity & death.” It was hoped that youth would wear the “medal” as a badge of honor and influence others to abstain

Despite the increase in the strength and sophistication of both movements, a long battle was ahead.

Major Early Arguments Against Tobacco Use

1. Moral:

Tobacco use leads to ruinous effect on the habits and morals of the user. It leads to “idle, sauntering habits…,” induces “benumbing, grovelling, stupid sensations….” Most importantly, it leads to intemperance. Chewing, sniffing and smoking often lead to drinking!!!!!

“Tobacco benumbs the affections and moral feelings, and renders love a mere passion. I knew a man who married a fine woman. At first he was very affectionate, his moral feelings were active, and for a time he studied for the ministry; but imbibing the habits of chewing and smoking, he became less pious and affectionate to his wife, and by the time he smoked thirty cigars per day, he could swear like a pirate, and abuse his wife shamefully. Not being able to endure his treatment any longer, she commenced drinking to drown her trouble, and soon put an end to her life.” [quoted in Robert, The Story of Tobacco in America, 109-110]

“…. The tobacco pipe excites a demand for an extraordinary quantity of some beverage to supply the waste of glandular secretion… ardent spirits are the common substitutes; and the smoker is often reduced to the state of dram drinking, and finishes his life as a sot.” [Fowler, 16]

“… smoking and chewing tobacco, by rendering water and other simple liquors insipid to the taste, dispose very much to the stronger stimulus of ardent spirits; hence, the practice of smoking cigars, ahs been followed by the use of brandy….” [Dr. Benjamin Rush, quoted in Fowler, 16]

Smoking and chewing, said one who once did both, “produced a continual thirst for stimulating drinks, and this tormenting thirst led me to the habit of drinking ale, porter, brandy, and other kinds of spirits…. I reformed, and after I had subdued the appetite for tobacco, I lost all desire for stimulating drink.” {Fowler, 16]


Though some early reformers saw that there were benefits to using small doses of nicotine in medical treatments, they saw only ill effects of smoking, chewing and snuff-taking on a person’s body and overall health.

“… tobacco is an active poison; … its constant use induces the most distressing and fatal diseases.” [Fowler, 14]

“No man can devote himself to the pipe, the quid, or the snuff box, without certain injury to his health and constitution. He may not perceive the injury at once, on account of immediate exhilaration; but complicated chronic complaints will creep upon him apace, making life a burden, and issuing a premature dissolution.” [Fowler, 14-15]

Anti-tobacco activists often “proved” that tobacco was a poison by telling of cats or dogs that were killed instantaneously when nicotine was placed on their tongues. “ A drop or two of the chemical oil of tobacco, being put on the tongue of a cat, produces violent convulsions, and death itself in the space of a minute.” [Robert, 107-108; Dr. Rees, quoted in Fowler, 12]

“As medical men, we know that smoking injures the whole organism, puts a man’s stomach and whole frame out of order; but it acts mainly, as all other poisons do, on the nervous system.” (quoted in the 1888 publication Anti-Tobacco by Abiel Abbot Livermore, 2-3)


Many activists pointed out that tobacco was damaging to the intellect…

“Intoxicating drinks, opium and tobacco, exert a pernicious influence upon the intellect. They tend directly to debilitate the organs…. Weaken the memory, unfix the attention,, and confuse all the mental operations…. [tobacco] can bow down to earth an intellect of giant strength, and make it grind in bondage…. . The use of tobacco may seem to soothe the feelings, and quicken the operations of the mind; but to what purpose is it that the machine is furiously running and buzzing after the balance wheel is taken off?” [quoted in Fowler, 14]

Economic Costs:

Fowler estimated that tobacco cost America over 25 million dollars a year (ten million spent on tobacco, 12 million dollars in time lost because of it, and over 3 million to pay pauper taxes and charity to those who succumbed to tobacco and drink and were unable to be productive citizens). [Fowler, 18-20]


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