Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. David A. Guba, Jr., of Bard Early College in Baltimore.
Most today agree that smoking is, medically speaking, bad for you. From the Surgeon Generals’ first warnings in 1964 through the anti-tobacco media campaigns of the Truth Initiative to the growing and controversial trend of vaping, Americans since the 1970s have, as Sarah Milov recently wrote, “increasingly identified themselves by their rejection of smoking.” This shift in public perception has not been isolated to the U.S. Warning labels with explicit images of cancerous lungs, increasing sales taxes, and near blanket prohibitions of smoking in public spaces are now all commonplace in many nations across the globe.
But across much of the world during the much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, public and medical opinion on cigarettes and their impact on health was more or less the opposite. Starting in the middle 1800s, for example, dozens of brands of “medicinal cigarettes” appeared on pharmacy shelves in nations across the West, many marketed as an effective treatment for asthma, congestion, and fever. One of the most successful brands was Grimault & Co. of Paris, who produced, marketed, and sold “Cigarettes Indiennes” as a “sovereign remedy” for asthma between the 1850s and 1930s. Grimault made their Indian cigarettes from a mixture of tobacco, cannabis, datura, and belladonna, and distributed them across the world, from their pharmaceutical factory in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine to distributors and pharmacies in over two dozen countries, for nearly a century.
Tobacco as Medicine in Early Modern Europe
Tobacco first came to Europe during the early 16th century on the returning ships of New World explorers working to extend the territorial holdings of the Spanish, Portuguese, British, and French crowns. Numerous famed and infamous explorers, from Columbus and Cortez to Raleigh and Rolfe, observed and appropriated indigenous cultures of tobacco consumption in the Americas, including pipe and cigar smoking, chewing, and snuffing, and transmitted them back to Europe via letters, personal demonstrations, and soon after a trans-Atlantic trade in the plant itself.
In the 18th century Carl Linnaeus gave tobacco the scientific name, Nicotiana, after Jean Nicot, French ambassador to Lisbon who first introduced the plant to France in the 1550s. Legend has it that Nicot gave the Queen consort of France, Catherine de Medici, a box of snuff, finely ground tobacco leaves that were snorted, to alleviate her headaches. By the 17th century many physicians in Europe agreed that snorting shredded tobacco leaves helped alleviate numerous ailments. As one French practitioner observed in 1742, “Snuff heals head colds, inflammation of the eyes, involuntary tears, headaches, migraines, dropsy, paralysis, and generally all those misfortunes caused by the pungency of the humours, their too great amount and their dissipation from their normal conduits.” These early modern physicians argued that the sneezing induced by snuffing helped to jettison “corrupt humors” from the body, thus leading to recovery.
While many in France and across the West continued to extol the virtues of “nictoian treatments” well into the 18th century, by the end of the 1700s most consumers of tobacco in Europe were recreational users of snuff and to a lesser degree of cigar and pipe smoking.
Medicinal Cigarettes in Modern France
This trend reversed itself during the 19th century and in large part due to the introduction of rolling papers and cigarettes. Eric Burns argues in The Smoke of the Gods: A Social history of Tobacco (2006), that the cigarette has mostly humble origins in early modern Europe as poor persons used scraps of paper to bind and smoke scavenged bits of tobacco (e.g. cigar butts, spittoon contents, etc.). Numerous tobacco houses and state monopolies, first in Spain and Russia during the 17th and 18th centuries then across the rest of Europe by the 19th, began to manufacture and sell their own paper wrapped smokes, marketing them most often to customers of lesser means.
During the early decades of the 1800s, the French tobacco monopoly, the Régie, increasingly pushed their own products, what they called cigarettes, and by the 1840s developed the world’s first mechanical rolling machines, thereby exponentially increasing production capacity and lowering costs. Several rolling paper manufacturers emerged, as well, such as the Lacroix Rolling Paper company founded in France in 1736, which eventually became RizLa (“riz” for rice paper and “La” for Lacroix), a globally popular brand of rolling papers today. By the middle 1800s, and particularly in France, then, the cigarette was well on its way to becoming the preferred mode of tobacco consumption.
As cigarettes grew in popularity in France during the second half of the 19th century, numerous tobacco and pharmaceutical companies began manufacturing “cigarettes médicinales” made from mixtures of tobacco and other psychoactive plants, such as datura stramonium, belladonna, and camphor. The 1844 edition of L’Officine, the key pharmacopeia in the French published annually by Parisian pharmacist François Dorvault, carried devoted two pages to “cigares médicinaux” and “cigarettes médicianles,” “new pharmaceutical elements which seem to be of some use to therapy.” The entry listed 5 brands of medicinal cigarettes then available on the French market: “Cigare Opiacés” made with a signature “extract of opium,” “cigarettes aromatiques,” “cigarettes arsenicales de Boudin” containing 50 mg of arsenic, Camphor cigarettes made by Raspail, and cigarettes rolled in a mercury and opium treated paper produced by Bernard.
All of the brands marketed themselves as an effective treatment for asthma and fever, believing much as early modern apologists of snuff that the resulting coughing fits provided an efficient means of exportation of bad phlegm. The various alkaloids in the cigarettes, meanwhile, produced a pain-relieving, anti-spasmodic effect.
Already in 1840 the Conseil de Salubrité in Paris, the country’s public health administration first created under Napoleon in 1802, took notice of the proliferation of medicinal cigarettes in the French pharmaceutical market. “It has been brought to our attention of the considerable number of pharmacists in Paris who are making cigarettes with stramonium, belladonna, digitalis, and jusquiame: some made them with the leaves of these same plants after their infusion in a solution of opium!” Believing these ingredients dangerous, the Conseil set about investigating medicinal cigarettes, discovering that “almost all the pharmacists of the capital sell such cigarettes. And use of these cigarettes leads to dizziness, nausea, intense headache, a sort of drunkenness, and finally a comatose state wish can be followed by more or less severe nervous symptoms.” Despite these seemingly serious side effects, the Conseil concluded that “we must leave to the pharmacists, and to them alone, the right to prepare medicinal cigars, always on the condition of delivering them only after the prescription of a person skilled in the art, and in the typical form of other medications.”
And French pharmacists and pharmaceutical companies did just that, continuing through the end of the turn of the century to push a variety of medicinal cigarettes made from a mélange of poisonous and psychoactive florae as an effective treatment against asthma.
Grimault’s Asthma Cigarette Empire
By far the most successful brand of medicinal cigarettes produced in France during the second half of the 19th century were those of Grimault. Grimault & Company pharmaceuticals of Paris built a successful patent medicine empire from the 1850s through the 1930s and largely on the international success of their “cigarettes indiennes” laced with cannabis, datura, and stramonium, and marketed as a “sovereign remedy” for asthma in over two dozen countries.
François Grimault, an apprentice working under the aforementioned French pharmacist François Dorvault (author of the pharmacopeia, L’Officine), and investor Francisque-Jean-Baptiste Rigaud formed the company in 1853 after purchasing majority shares in Dorvault’s Parisian pharmaceutical practice. Though plagued during its first decades by nearly a dozen lawsuits, several launched by Dorvault over the company’s continued use of his name to sell new medicines, Grimault & Co. quickly grew into an internationally recognized pharmaceutical brand, selling patent medicines, including horseradish syrup, matico capsules, elixirs made of quinquina and guarna, hemp seed oil, and asthma cigarettes laced with cannabis, datura, and arsenic, across the globe.
The bulk of these medicines were produced at Grimault’s facility in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine using raw materials procured by its various agents (négociants) working primarily in Southeast Asia and South America. Once produced and packaged in Paris, these medicines were then sold in pharmacies in most major cities across France and exported to distributors across France and in over two dozen countries, who then marketed and sold the products.
Between 1860 and the start of WWI, Grimault placed over 4000 advertisements in French newspapers, magazines, and journals for their Indian cigarettes. Grimault also placed numerous advertisements in publications in Great Britain and its colonies (especially Australia, New Zealand, and Canada), as well as in the U.S., Germany, Mexico, and Spain during the same period.
What follows is a sampling of the advertisements for Grimault’s Indian cigarettes in the French and international press during the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries:
By the start of World War I, Grimault’s Indian cigarettes were widely available across much of the Western and colonial worlds. After the Great War the formulation of the International Opium Convention by the League of Nations in 1925 regulated the trade of cannabis, thus threatening the availability of key ingredient in Grimault’s Indian cigarettes. However, lawyers working on behalf of Grimault & Co. successfully obtained an official exemption in Geneva allowing the continued production and international distribution of the company’s Indian cigarettes.
Despite the legal exemption it appears that Grimault’s Indian cigarettes gradually disappeared from advertisements as well as most shelves by the early 1930s.
- Sarah Milov, The Cigarette: A Political History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019), 2.
- Père Labat quoted in Jordan Goodman, Tobacco in History: The Cultures of Dependence (New York: Routledge, 2005), 77.
- Jordan Goodman, Tobacco in History: The Cultures of Dependence (New York: Routledge, 2005), 74-89.
- Eric Burns, The Smoke of the Gods: A Social history of Tobacco (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006), 128-32.
- Jordan Goodman, Tobacco in History, 94-7; Prosper Gayvalet, Le Monopole du tabac en France, Doctoral Thesis, Université de Tolouse, Faculty of Law, 1905.
- François Dorvault, L’Officine, ou Répertoire général de pharmacie pratique (Paris: 1844), 202. Pictured in Figure 1.
- “Police Médicale—Cigarettes Médicinales,” Rapport général sur les travaux du Conseil de salubrité, 1840-1845 (Paris: Boucquin, Imprimeur de la Prèfecture de la Police, 1847), 136-137.
- Chris S. Duvall has done some preliminary work on the English-language advertisements of Grimault. See Duvall, Cannabis (London: Reaktion Books, 2014), 135-137.
- Summary of Annual Reports of Governments on the Traffic in Opium and Other Dangerous Drugs (Geneva: League of Nations, 1926), 45.