The fascinating relationship between pharmacy and smoking

By John Betts, Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum Officer

Given the scientific knowledge we now have about the harmful effects of smoking on health it seems unbelievable that in the past medical professionals viewed smoking as an effective and legitimate medicinal treatment. One of my father’s aunts, who regularly suffered from coughs and sore throats, was told by her doctor in the 1930s to take up smoking to toughen up her throat!

The fascinating, and at times contradictory, relationship between pharmacy and smoking inspired me to curate new Developing Treatments exhibition ‘Going Up in Smoke’ – Smoking and Pharmacy.

The display covers both the smoking of tobacco, and other substances, as a medicinal treatment; and the development of the anti-smoking treatments to help people quit smoking.

So why was smoking a medicinal treatment? Smoking was primarily used to treat medical conditions of the respiratory system, and was seen as one of the most effective ways to get the medicine straight to the lungs. Aside from tobacco, the main medicinal substances smoked were stramonium, belladonna, and even cannabis.

Perhaps the most alarming object in the display is a box of Arsenical Cigarettes, dating from around 1904-1930. The cigarettes consist of tobacco wrapped in a rolling paper impregnated with arsenic. During this period asthma, bronchitis, and hay fever were all treated by smoking arsenical cigarettes.

Despite increasing scientific knowledge about the negative effects of smoking any substance on the respiratory system, Asthma Cigarettes containing stramonium were manufactured until the mid 1980s. Even more troubling is the fact that it wasn’t until 2001 that pharmacies were banned from selling (non-medicinal) tobacco cigarettes.

The other section of the display focuses on the development of medicines to help people quit smoking. Even 100 years ago manufacturers and pharmacists were responding to consumer demand by developing anti-smoking treatments. The pharmacological effectiveness of these early treatments however is doubtful, compared with the smoking cessation products now available.

The process of putting the display together revealed how far pharmaceutical knowledge has come both in terms of treating respiratory conditions (without smoking!) and in the development of anti-smoking medicines. Aside from the provision medicines, it also highlighted what an increasingly important role of pharmacists in terms of offering advice and support to help people wanting to quit smoking.

‘Going Up in Smoke’ – Smoking and Pharmacy
Friday 9 March 2012 – Friday 29 March 2013
Open to the public Monday – Friday, 9am – 5pm. Admission is FREE
The display is also available online
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