Paris, April 23 (Reuters): Tobacco began life in France as a nobleman’s cure for a monarch’s migraine.
Almost five centuries later, it has become a king-size headache for the French government, which has declared war on the wicked weed it blames for the country’s soaring cancer rate.
But Tigrane Hadengue says cigarettes have given tobacco a bad name, a wrong he has set about righting with his tiny “Museum of the Smoker” located perhaps a bit too close for comfort to the sprawling Pere Lachaise cemetery in northeastern Paris.
The French love affair with tobacco dates from the mid-16th century when Jean Nicot, convinced of its healing powers, sent some powdered leaf to Catherine de Medici to treat the crippling headaches suffered by her son King Francois II.
Its success led to the plant from the New World being named “Nicotiana Tabacum” and ensured Nicot’s place in history.
Initially popular because of its medicinal properties, tobacco was not long for the apothecary’s shelf and within 200 years it had conquered the globe, says Hadengue. But, he explains, tobacco and smoking are so much more than the “smokes”, “gaspers” or “cancer sticks” that pass mechanically from the hand to the mouth of millions daily.
“You can’t really say cigarettes are tobacco. It’s a manufactured product based on tobacco, extremely harmful, above all because of the additives it contains, induces compulsive consumption, and you smoke them while doing other things.
“In the museum what we are seeing is young men, I’d say around 25-35 years old, who no longer have the same naive view of the cigarette. And just as they discovered good wine...they are now discovering cigars.
“They want to replace a blind, excessive consumption of cigarettes, one after another. Cigars offer the possibility, for those who want to smoke, of an act that has more to do with savouring, like the great wines of France.”
“If you listen to people talk about their relationship with tobacco, with cigarettes it’s generally love-hate, frustration,” added the museum’s co-founder Michka. “When people mention cigars, the pleasure principle dominates.”
The museum is a paean to tobacco chic. Its tasteful interior is lined with engravings of 18th century smokers, its walls and display cases packed with pipe cleaners, cigarette holders, snuff boxes, lighters....
Books on what to smoke and how to smoke it, like the 2003 Havanoscope, the cigar smoker’s bible, are on sale, as well as more cigarette papers than you can find a match for. The proceeds help finance the museum.
A raft of anti-cigarette tracts are also on offer, plus advice on how to give up. And the museum’s ever-expanding library has the very last word on smoking, smokers and the smokable, the whole set in eminently tasteful surroundings.
The cafe’s ceiling was painted by a group of cartoon enthusiasts under the watchful eye of their mentor Gilbert Shelton, author of the cult “Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers” books, whose works have sold 60 million copies.
The museum even grows smoking substitutes like hemp, cultivated in its very own mini-hot house. But with a police station just around the corner, the museum’s owners are quick to point out that the hemp it grows is not the cannabis variety smoked widely but still illegal in France.
Europeans were disgusted when they first saw the indigenous peoples of the Americas putting tubes of dried rolled leaves to their mouths, describing them as savages and ministers of the devil who spat smoke like dragons.
In fact, the act of smoking was often part of a sacred rite.
“In some cultures, the absorption of certain plants either calls down the gods into the world of humans or allows man access to the divine,” said Michka.
But mass consumption has largely robbed the act of smoking of its mysticism and its aesthetic. “Setting up a museum of the cigarette wouldn’t interest me at all, because it evokes no beauty,” said Hadengue.