20 OCTOBER 2001, Page 61

It can seriously improve wealth

Zenga Longmore

LA DIVA NICOTINA: THE STORY OF HOW TOBACCO SEDUCED THE WORLD by lain Gately Simon & Schuster, £14.99, pp. 403, ISBN 074308129 Like a great detective writer, lain Gately traces the origins and eventual evil dictatorship of tobacco, the deadly but fascinating weed in a robust narrative style. The investigation begins amongst the ancient civilisations of South America. The Mayans, who flourished between 2000 BC and AD 900, farmed tobacco not only for pleasure but also for religious rituals. At least two of their gods, we are told, were confirmed smokers. Tobacco was also believed to contain medicinal properties, curing toothache and snake bites, and was recommended for lung-clearing.

By the time Columbus arrived in the New World, tobacco use had spread throughout North and South America. Columbus was met by a local tribe offering gifts of beads, fruit and dried tobacco leaves. Returning the favour, the Spanish were able to offer numerous fatal diseases. The mere presence of Europeans was enough to depopulate an island.

Tobacco began its European life in the gardens of palaces, where it was studied by court physicians who, ironically, believed it to be a cure for cancer. Contrary to popular myth, smoking had already reached England years before Raleigh's Virginia expedition in 1586. Once Queen Elizabeth had been persuaded to have a smoke, the rest of the nation followed her example. 'The English are constantly smoking,' lamented Paul Hentzner, a German visitor, in 1598. 'They draw the smoke into their mouths, which they puff out again through their nostrils, like funnels, along with it plenty of phlegm and disfluxion from the head.'

Meanwhile, in Africa, the habit of lighting up was spreading like wildfire. The Portuguese, having set up chains of trading posts across West Africa, introduced smoking to the locals, who in turn passed the habit on to other tribes. Tobacco reached the heart of Africa centuries before the white man arrived. Taken in canoes and along forest paths, tobacco gained the reputation of an aphrodisiac and a miracleworking wonder drug. The Chinese, who also sampled their first whiff of nicotine courtesy of Portugese merchants in the late 16th century, believed smoking provided protection against malaria.

Despite the fact that James I loathed smoking as much as he did witches and women, he reaped rich rewards from the tobacco plantations in the New World colonies. African slaves (themselves partial to the odd roll-up, according to Gately) and indentured labourers from England and Ireland created the tobacco plantations of America and the Caribbean, destroying virgin forests and exhausting the land.

The Dutch brought the magic weed to the Far East and South-East Asia, and made a remarkable bargain in Africa. In 1652 the entire peninsula of the Cape of Good Hope was purchased for 'a certain quantity of tobacco and brandy'.

During the 18th century, most of Spanish America's slave-produced tobacco was sent to factories in Spain, where it was made into cigars and snuff. The craze for snuff spanned class and continents, reaching the noses of everyone from clergymen to Casanova, One of the impacts of the Age of Enlightenment on European colonies was the introduction of tobacco across the newly charted world. By 1800, innocent people who previously had very little in the way of drug habits, such as the Aboriginal Australians and the Tahitians, were aping the Europeans' compelling and deadly habits, namely booze and fags.

Gately guides us around Victorian gentlemen's clubs, Turkish harems, the trenches, and cancer wards to satisfy our fiendish fascination with this glamorous killer. No Nicotina Rustica leaf is left unturned in the quest. In one chapter we visit Hollywood, where stars were paid by cigarette manufacturers to light up for publicity photographs. Movies changed smoking forever. Smoking on screen became a substitute for a kiss — or more, When Groucho Marx met a woman who told him she had 22 children because she loved her husband, he responded, 'I like my cigar, too, But I take it out of my mouth once in a while.'

La Diva Nicotina is as enjoyable and seductive as a fine Silk Cut. I was hooked.