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Iconic smokers: From left, Mae West, the Rat Pack, James Dean, John Wayne, Jean Seberg, and Jessica Lange. ("No Smoking" (Assouline))

Ashes to ashes

Smoking bans have triumphed from Boston to Bhutan. But they're unlikely to snuff out the centuries-old culture of smoke.

LAST MONTH researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health released a report claiming that despite the fears of restaurant and bar owners the state-wide smoking ban instituted last July had not put a damper on business. According to their review of state records, tax collections on meals at Massachusetts restaurants, bars, and nightclubs rose about 9 percent (adjusted for inflation) in the first six months after the ban went into effect.

But the researchers' findings weren't just economic. They also concluded, according to a Globe report, that at least one tavern had brightened up since the ban. ''It was much more like a restaurant and less like a dirty bar," chirped one of the Harvard researchers. The air was clear. A new day had dawned in the Commonwealth.

Does the apparent triumph of smoking bans from Boston to Bhutan -- not to mention the ruinous cigarette taxes that have sent smokers to websites instructing them on how to buy cigarettes from out-of-state sources using untraceable money orders -- prove that if the 20th century was a century of smoking, the 21st will end up smokeless? Will smoking become the bad habit of a few criminalized holdouts, or will this brand of prohibition re-glamorize a vice once seen as sophisticated and cool?

Inevitably, another public-health report will let us know. Until then, two recent books that investigate smoking and its place in society -- one via photography, the other through the lens of cultural studies -- show that for all the efforts of the anti-smoking movement, smoking has a hold on American culture that's stronger than addiction and deeper than the pocketbook.

''No Smoking" (Assouline), by Luc Sante, uses hundreds of photographs to make the case that a visual history of our culture is impossible without including cigarettes, cigars, and pipes. Although the US Post Office may digitally remove those items from the mouths of iconic American artists like blues musician Robert Johnson and painter Jackson Pollock when depicting them on stamps, Sante's book proves that erasing smoking from the real cultural record isn't so easy. While Sante, a photography critic and the author of ''Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York," doesn't gloss over the dangers of smoking, he laments the ''terribly sad" fact that ''you can't enjoy a smoke now and again without tumbling into the whirlpool of perdition." The enjoyment evident in his book demonstrates that whether they were on the road to hell or not, the people who created the culture on which ours rests smoked like fiends.

Aided by tobacco, consoled by its accoutrements, they stare at us from the past and ask to be understood as smokers. Here are Miles Davis and Robert Mitchum, Carole Lombard and Marilyn Monroe, even Jack Lemmon and Jacques Tati, captured in shades of smoke. It's impossible to contemplate Jean Seberg from Godard's ''Breathless" (a smoker's title), or Peter Falk from Cassavetes' ''Husbands," without seeing that the world they came from would've been different without smoking. Subtract smoke from these portraits and something is lost. Call it the sublime (as Richard Klein did in his 1993 elegy ''Cigarettes Are Sublime") or call it self-destruction, without it the culture would have been other than it was. What will replace it? How can the banality of good health compete with ''Breathless"?

It seems more than a coincidence that the increasing blandness of the cultural landscape and the eradication of smoking have proceeded together. For while many of the producers of today's entertainments are still smokers themselves, that activity is disallowed in their creations. As sanitized versions of reality replace the investigations of a Godard or a Cassavetes, a cultural hole opens up to compete with the one in the ozone.

The hectoring of anti-smoking groups is all but silenced by a still of Lauren Bacall exhaling insolence with her cigarette smoke. The anti-smoking groups know that; it's why they campaign non-stop. Indeed, associations with dangerous beauty and theatrical self-regard are fundamental to smoking's appeal, even at the level of packaging. ''No Smoking" -- which itself comes boxed inside a giant cigarette pack -- features pages of beautifully designed cigarette packs set against black backgrounds. One brand is called Alain Delon, after the French movie star. The packs have tigers on them, bison, polar bears. These small boxes are among the talismanic objects of modernity. It is not only because they are dangerous that we put warnings on them, or pictures of disease, like they do in Canada. They have to be made ugly.

In their own guarded, flirting-with-bad-karma way, the authors collected in ''Smoke: A Global History of Smoking" (Reaktion) defend and even praise the smoker variously as an adventurer, an artist, a dissident, a hale fellow, a boon companion, and a defender of pleasure against the forces of moralism. This weighty tome, edited by cultural historians Sander L. Gilman of the University of Illinois and Zhou Xun of the University of London, thoroughly explores the history of smoking, from its roots in Native American culture to its autumn in the era of high taxes and bans. Although it's illustrated in color with everything from Edo woodblock prints to American cigarette ads from the 1930s (one features a smoking Santa recommending cartons of Lucky Strikes for Christmas), ''Smoke" isn't a seductive requiem like ''No Smoking" but a collection of scholarly essays on the history, culture, and physiology of smoking.

For Gilman and Zhou, smoking is an activity that helps define what it means to be human. Whether we smoke with friends or strangers, ''the very act of smoking reinforces our relationship to that network we call humanity." Smokers were once thought to make the best conversationalists, the best soldiers, even the best husbands. But today, in another ''sign of the postmodern," smoke is understood as ''the miasma...that infiltrates the unsuspecting body of the bystander and destroys not only the social network but life itself." In our health-obsessed age, smoking more than any other human activity seems to define ''the predicament of modern autonomy: do we choose to do something that destroys our ability to choose again? Or is the seduction of smoking one that we enter into autonomously, engaging in those actions that give us pleasure even though/because they are inexorably intertwined with the very promise of risk?"

Whether or not Gilman and Zhou's vision of a smoke-fueled existential crisis is convincing, their book, like ''No Smoking," confirms the idea that smoking and the theatrical go together. Timon Screech's essay in ''Smoke," ''Tobacco in Edo Period Japan," traces the smoking culture of the ''kabuki-mono" (the ''bent people"), dandified 16th-century rowdies whose bawdy interactions with dancers and singers evolved into kabuki theater. Screech calls the kabuki-mono ''dangerous products of the globalized age" -- the globalized age of 400 years ago. The kabuki-mono wore imported clothes and adopted habits like smoking they'd picked up from European traders. Their affectations led to fuzoku (manners and customs) laws, including, by 1629, bans on both kabuki and tobacco -- growing it was punishable by death.

The principle lesson of ''Smoke" may be that wherever tobacco has been smoked it has also been railed against, massively taxed and banned. At the same time as the kabuki-mono were wreaking havoc on Japanese mores, King James I was trying to stamp out the mania for tobacco in England, claiming that it made its users unfit servants of the state. (Smoking, he wrote in his 1604 tract ''A Counterblaste to Tobacco," was ''a custom lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse.") To help them break their habit, James increased the tobacco tax 4,000 percent. That these earlier smoking restrictions never lasted may provide cold comfort to smokers already shivering outside while their drinks get warm inside, but the fact is that even when the punishment for smoking was execution, people from cultures across the globe continued to do it.

Today's anti-smoking era has a few consolations, including the strange feeling of smoker's solidarity that develops as smokers begin more and more to see themselves as a beleaguered minority. ''... A certain dark anti-glamour lingers outside the restaurant doorway," Sante writes, ''as you and people you will never meet again enjoy the rough comradeship of exile, puffing away in your thin jackets in February as if you were doing something heroic."

As the anti-smoking movement continues to gain ground, that ''as if" is starting to seem iffier. To smokers, anyway.

A.S. Hamrah is a writer living in Brooklyn.

Rita Hayworth in 'Gilda,' 1946.
Rita Hayworth in "Gilda," 1946. ("No Smoking" (Assouline))
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