Blowing Smoke

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Blowing Smoke

Funny cigarettes were touted as a treatment for asthma in the 19th century.

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Allergists urge asthma sufferers to stay away from smoke, whether from tobacco or other sources. But that wasn’t always the case. In Medical History (April), Mark Jackson recalls a time when doctors advised asthmatic patients to light ­up.

In the 19th century, many sufferers treated their asthma by smoking the stalks and roots of jimsonweed, known as stramon­ium. In 1835, one doctor endorsed stramonium as an asthma treat­ment that had the added benefit of producing “a grateful forgetfulness and a balmy oblivion, like opiates.” An 1860 asthma treatise advocated smoking stramonium each night to “keep the disease at bay.” By the end of the century, many companies were marketing stra­mon­ium cigarettes or stramonium powder that an asthmatic could burn in a bowl, inhaling the ­smoke.

The stramonium prescription largely died out by the middle of the 20th century, as doctors concluded that smoke worsens bronchial inflammation. But there may have been something to the treatment: Some of today’s asthma inhalers administer atro­pine, an alkaloid derived from stramonium.