‘Anthropology of Tobacco’: Book Review

Emily Sinclair reviews Andrew Russell’s Anthropology of Tobacco: Ethnographic adventures in non-human worlds (Routledge: 2019).

In his Anthropology of Tobacco Andrew Russell takes a refreshing look at the history of this plant, both spirit and commodity, by placing tobacco centre-stage as the protagonist in its own tale of world domination. This follows current trends in anthropology since the 1980s whereby the non-human has become of paramount interest and ‘things’, previously viewed as passive objects in the realm of human affairs, have taken on a life of their own (key works including Appadurai, 1986; Strathern, 1988; Haraway, 1991; Latour, 1993; Gell, 1998; Viveiros de Castro, 1998; Miller, 2009 and Kohn, 2013). Yet for many Amerindian and native American societies tobacco’s agency is a reality due to their belief in the spirit of the plant, something which Russell could have emphasised more, but his approach is more tongue and cheek than that, speaking to the way in which tobacco collaborates with the human realm affecting human action and experience, for better or worse. Indeed, tobacco emerges as both remedy and poison through this exploration of its passage across cultures and time.

Reviewer Emily Sinclair smoking a tobacco pipe. Girona, Spain. Photograph by Daniela Peluso.

The book is split into two parts: the ‘Life’ and ‘Times’ of tobacco. Part one of the book tracks tobacco’s journey across the world from the period of colonial discovery to present times, and its transformation across cultures from ritual sacrament to mass-consumed commodity. The story begins in Lowland South America where tobacco’s use in healing and sorcery among indigenous peoples is conveyed through myth and ethnography in Chapter 1. As Russell argues, tobacco has been largely overlooked by Amerindian anthropologists historically due to its apparent familiarity , but here it is given its rightful place in the literature as one of the most respected and powerful ‘master plants’ within Amerindian culture with a long history of ritual and everyday use. From ‘master plant’ to prized commodity, Chapter 2 recalls tobacco’s global expansion: from first contact with Europeans during the 15th century throughout cross-continental trade routes to arrival in European society up to the 17th century, Russell tracks tobacco’s transforming characterisations as herbal medicine, unsavoury habit, and pleasurable companion through colonial records, herbals, English poetry , and – especially interestingly – as personified throughout Elizabethan plays. Chapter 3 explores opposition to tobacco’s expansion during the 17th century on theological grounds whereby tobacco was demonized and associated with religious deviance, and from the Crown, most notably coming from James I of England (VI of Scotland); yet tobacco triumphs over conflict on the grounds of its value as a revenue source and shows surprising significance in English history as a securer of the ‘common-wealth’ through the founding of the colony of Virginia.

Chapter 4 stands out as a bold statement of tobacco’s importance in European history, in which Russell argues convincingly for tobacco’s role in the ‘Enlightenment’ movement, drawing parallels between the development of Enlightenment thought and culture in Europe and the development of Amerindian thought and culture. Highlighting tobacco’s intoxicating effects, Russell suggests that tobacco played an important role in the development of both Western multiculturalism and also its cultural ‘other’, Amerindian ‘multinaturalism’, as has been defined by anthropologist Viveiros de Castro (1998). According to de Castro’s widely accepted theory of ‘cosmological perspectivism’, Amerindian cosmologies contain multiple selves or persons , both nonhuman and human , all having a common kind of soul but different corporality, all seeing themselves and their own species as human and experiencing their different worlds from this perspective. This is in contrast to Western perspectives that separate Nature and Culture, since the dawn of Enlightenment thought, a theme Russell returns to through his protagonist throughout the remainder of the book.

Tobacco purgative made from nicotina rustica. Iquitos, Peru. Photograph by Emily Sinclair.

The last chapters in the first section follow tobacco as it moves through its various manifestations as snuff (5) cigars (6) and finally commercial cigarettes became available in time for the 20th ‘century of cigarettes’ (7, 8). Tobacco seduces high society, participates in the slave trade, makes its way into powerful male circles, is transformed into a symbol of women’s liberation, becomes a key player in the global market integral to the growth of the corporation, and becomes the focus of controversy with the rising and quashing of tobacco temperance movements as health risks and addictive qualities become more apparent in the age of Science. Of particular interest for this section are Russell’s reflections on the separation of Nature and Culture in industrialised society, a classic theme in Anthropology examined here through the story of tobacco’s world domination and villainization within this period of cultural and scientific renovation in 18thcentury Europe. Through Russell’s account tobacco is re-instated in history as an actor in intellectual and socio-cultural developments that occurred during this time involving the subjugation of Nature and the rise of white-male dominated Culture, represented for example by the rise of plantation agriculture in the USA as tobacco is transformed from a colonial plant to a globally traded commodity. Gendered and racial aspects of this process in pro and anti-tobacco contexts are given due attention in this discussion.

Tobacco plant. Nicotina Rustica. Lytham, UK. Photograph by Emily Sinclair.

The second part of the book, set in contemporary ‘times’, focuses on tobacco control. Explored largely through the lens of Russell’s and others’ ethnographic research, these chapters look at approaches to tobacco control at local and global levels, describe the battle between anti-smoking public health efforts and corporate power, follow social developments as smoking becomes stigmatized in the 21st century, and track the transformation of plant into machine with the invention of ‘e-cigarettes’. In the final chapter Russell asks the reader to ‘imagine a world without tobacco’, as proposed by the global tobacco control movement. He describes prohibitionist efforts across different cultural contexts including Buddhist efforts to wipe out the apparently evil spirit of tobacco and extreme Islamic fundamentalist measures. These perspectives are countered by the perspectives of ‘tobacco- people’ of New Zealand who have benefitted from tobacco production, as well as references to the therapeutic effects of tobacco for the treatment of HIV symptoms and Ebola virus (to which can be added its possible utility for the prevention of corona virus which has come to light following publication (Miraya et. al. 2020). Missing from these accounts, from the perspective of an anthropologist of Amazonian shamanism at least, is comment on the current revitalisation of tobacco based healing practices taking place in the Amazon and beyond, including the increasing popularity and globalisation of the tobacco based snuff substance, rapé. To imagine a world without tobacco is certainly not desirable for many people and cultures who still hold tobacco in high regard as a healing plant and spirit. These views seem somewhat designated to the past due to the chronological ordering of the book. More attention might have been given throughout to the differences between commercial cigarettes and tobacco in its raw form as used from the past to the present in shamanic contexts, and the potential health implications of this transformation. Yet there is room for these perspectives elsewhere.

The scope of Russell’s Anthropology of Tobacco is impressive and the author succeeds brilliantly in his task of bringing what has been ‘hidden in plain sight’ to the fore and giving tobacco its rightful place in history and present cultural debate. Even post-Enlightenment perspectives on tobacco, perhaps more familiar to the reader as its vices come to light, are re-told with historical and literary detail in the author’s style of intrigue, maintained throughout the book. Despite the author’s allegiance to public health perspectives, he offers a much more diverse and interesting picture of tobacco than public health discourse allows; indeed, at the core of this epic tale is tobacco’s inherent duality as both poison and remedy throughout and across cultures. Russell moves seamlessly through different anthropological schools of thought offering valuable insights and making interesting connections between diverse fields of study including Amerindian studies, public health studies and political anthropology. The book is testament to the breadth and value of its approach, focusing on and taking the perspective of the non-human, a great contribution to this growing field as much as to tobacco’s legacy.


Appadurai, A. (1986) The Social Life of Things. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gell, A. (1998) Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hall, M. (2011) Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Haraway, D. ([1985] 1991) A cyborg manifesto: science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late 20th Century. In D. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, pp. 149–81.

Kohn, E. (2013) How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Latour, B. (1993) We Have Never Been Modern. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Miller, D. (2009) Stuff. London: Polity Press.Miyara et. al. (2020) ‘Low rate of daily smokers in patients with symptomatic COVID-19’, https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.06.10.20127514.

Miyara et. al. (2020). Low incidence of daily active tobacco smoking in patients with symptomatic COVID-19. https://www.qeios.com/read/WPP19W.3.

Strathern, Marilyn. (1988). The Gender of the gift. London/ Berkeley: University of California Press.

Viveiros de Castro, E. (1998) Cosmological deixis and Amerindian perspectivism. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 4(3): 469–88.

Emily Sinclair is a social anthropology PhD. candidate with Durham University, UK. Her research focuses on the globalisation of ayahuasca in the context of the Iquitos region, Peru, where she has been based mostly since 2014. As well as conducting anthropological fieldwork, Emily lived and worked with a local healer there with whom she ran an ayahuasca healing centre for over two years and has also worked as a facilitator in other centres and with other healers including tobaqueros. Emily is a member of the Ayahuasca Community Committee for Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines (www.chacruna/net), an organization dedicated to educating the public and creating cultural understanding and legitimacy regarding plant medicines. She advocates for safe and responsible practice related to plant medicines and was the leader of the 2020 Ayahuasca Community Sexual Abuse awareness initiative. Her interests include shamanism, religion and spirituality, Amerindian cultures, and psychedelics.

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