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I have a story that is set in a world with a 1910's to 1940's style going on. So fitting to that era I have quite a few characters who smoke.

Now I have a scenario where one of the main characters (the only one of the main cast who regularly smokes cigarettes) gets asked by a character from a different country if he is not worried about the possible risks to his health associated with smoking, only for the smoking character to explain that the specific type of cigarette that he smokes (which will be a brand exclusive to that characters home country) is completely harmless to his health.

So my question is: Could a cigarette type theoretically exist that is not harmful to your health. (at least no more harmful than the occasional alcoholic beverage or junk food) without having to resort to something akin to e-cigarettes or vapes (for the style of the story the cigarette has to be able to be "rolled" and lit with a match or lighter)

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    $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Candy_cigarette $\endgroup$ Nov 4 at 17:23
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    $\begingroup$ In that era, the idea that tobacco smoking would lead to terminal diseases was speculative. More alarming were visible and sensible concerns (smell, tooth darkening, cough etc.) Regarding your question, any tobacco smoking is harmful, even if nicotine is eliminated. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Nov 4 at 17:28
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    $\begingroup$ If there was a form of cigarette that didn't have health risks, don't you think it would be quite popular in the real world? $\endgroup$
    – N. Virgo
    Nov 5 at 9:02
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    $\begingroup$ Do you want a "1910's to 1940's style…" or something else? If you really have "1910's to 1940's style going on" of course quite a few characters smoke… If you really have "1910's to 1940's style going on" so many people smoke that the idea there could be "only one of the main cast who regularly smokes…" becomes ludicrous. Are you seeking historical truth or political correctness or what, please? $\endgroup$ Nov 7 at 0:00
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    $\begingroup$ The question seems irrelevant to the story. It doesn't matter whether the cigarette is safe or even "mostly" safe. What matters is whether the character believes the cigarette is safe. That's a completely different question. $\endgroup$
    – David K
    Nov 7 at 0:56

5 Answers 5

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Have less advanced medical science

While you can't burn something and breathe it in without health issues, you can have doctors who aren't very good at science. They did studies on the local version of cigarettes, and found out they improve health on net.

As such, science in your universe will say that cigarettes improve health.

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ Sorry, I couldn't resist. If the pic upsets you, pull it. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Nov 4 at 20:13
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    $\begingroup$ @DWKraus Lucky Strikes! No, the image is perfect! $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Nov 6 at 3:21
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    $\begingroup$ You don't need more advanced medical science. It took OUR medical science YEARS to establish causation for smoking with cancer. I think if they had more powerful lobbying, or the private sector had more ruthless tools like "legalized" kidnappings, nobody would risk trying to "prove" the danger of smoking. $\endgroup$
    – Nelson
    Nov 6 at 12:24
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    $\begingroup$ Also, the acute effects of smoking are pretty ok, and solve some health problems. It's the long-term effects that get ya. $\endgroup$
    – fectin
    Nov 7 at 12:06
  • $\begingroup$ @fectin True. 1 Strike is OK. Three Strikes and you are out. ;-) $\endgroup$ Nov 7 at 17:01
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There is no form of smoke (or even smoke substitute, like glycerin fog) that can be inhaled over a significant time frame without causing some kind of harm.

Other plant leaves than tobacco, though lacking the addictive nicotine, still carry most of the other poisons the FDA warns about -- carbon monoxide, carcinogens, etc. Even pure cellulose produces fine particulates, which are behind a wide variety of lung diseases.

Beyond that, all of the liquids that can be used in a fog machine (which works the same as a vapor machine aka e-cigarette) are harmful over long exposure.

I believe it's impossible for any cigarette that actually produces smoke for inhalation to be "completely harmless" -- the closest you could come would be the pointless exercise of simply holding the cigarette in your mouth, occasionally fiddling with it as you would to manage ash on a conventional cancer stick.

That said, as mentioned in a comment, before about 1960 it wasn't widely believed that smoking was harmful -- I've seen advertisements (featuring then movie star Ronald Reagan!) from that time period touting a particular brand of cigarette as soothing and healthful -- so it's very possible your character actually believes what he's saying, even while he's destroying his own life.

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  • $\begingroup$ What would happen if you put nicotine powder (plus water) into an ultrasonic humidifier? Shouldn’t that be pretty harmless? Assuming nicotine itself doesn’t have any bad effect on the lungs. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Nov 5 at 19:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael: The lungs are extremely sensitive. It's probably safest to assume that introducing any foreign chemical into the lungs is unsafe unless there have been clinical trials. We know that vaping can contribute to various health problems, although it's unclear whether it specifically causes cancer (the products haven't been available for long enough to test that). $\endgroup$
    – Kevin
    Nov 6 at 2:23
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    $\begingroup$ Funnily enough, it took only a couple decades after the introduction of smoking to Europe for people to realize it's a major health hazard (in comparison to other activities related to soot and smoke, e.g. being a chimney sweeper). The idea that smoking is healthy or safe is a recent invention, mostly of the USA tobacco industry. The link to lung cancer was proven beyond reasonable doubt in the 1920s - but those findings were utterly suppressed; they wouldn't ever get published in newspapers, for example, because newspapers relied heavily on advertising revenues from tobacco companies. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Nov 7 at 9:00
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No, but...

There is no form of inhaled combustion that, consumed regularly or intensely, won't harm the body. None. None whatsoever. Tobacco, wood smoke, car exhaust, Marijuana... none. The human body is fantastic at protecting itself from minor exposures, but long-term or intense exposures will always damage the body.

But maybe we can learn something from another vice. There is no alcohol consumed regularly or intensely that won't harm the body. None. None whatsoever.

And yet most of the world believes drinking red wine is beneficial.

They're not entirely wrong.1 When you ignore the alcohol, red wine appears to have benefits and an argument could be made that weighing the pros and cons results in a net positive.

So, the question becomes:

What benefits can come from smoking anything that would, at least to the degree of suspension-of-disbelief, have a net positive benefit?

Proponents of Marijuana will tell you the benefits far outweigh the consequences. Science appears to be proving that the beneficial aspects of Marijuana can be had without any of the negatives (it needn't be smoked), but let's ignore that. The problem with something like Marijuana is that it alters perception and mental acuity more than tobacco does. Is there something that doesn't?

There might be. From this website we learn that there may be benefits from smoking herbs such as:

  • Mullein
  • Red Raspberry Leaf
  • Peppermint
  • Mugwort
  • Lobellia
  • Damiana

If nothing else, your smoker will be unique compared to all those tobacco smoking characters.

Legal Disclaimer #1: Smoking anything is harmful. It doesn't matter what benefits may exist. Your lungs weren't designed to absorb ash or, worse, any combusting material. This answer is for the purposes of a work of fiction and should not be construed as an endorsment of any kind. Though there are many who will completely disagree with me, smoking anything is simply foolish.

Legal Disclaimer #2: Writing a story that includes a reference such as is suggested by this answer (i.e., a rationalization that smoking anything could have a net-positive) could have a consequence among readers of your story and distributors of your story in the Real World. At least here in the U.S., we've been on an anti-smoking kick for a long time and the existing subcultures that embrace smoking won't change the fact that (e.g.) Barnes and Noble might not carry your story because a vocal organization like the Truth Initiative threatens to boycott them over the matter. Probably won't happen, but fair warning.


1Just to make a point, the world is full of false news, false beliefs, and false hope. An example of this is an article titled, "7 Science-Backed Health Benefits of Drinking Red Wine," which, after making the audacious claim that science has proven red wine to be beneficial, thereafter preceeds every claim with words like "potentially," "can be," and "may be." When humanity is brought to the point of a tack, the truth is we'll convince ourselves that any vice has a benefit.

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Your character smokes clove cigarettes.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kretek

They are not healthier or safer than regular cigarettes. But many people think they are and your smoking character is one. He explains that the spices and other things in the clove cigarettes bind toxins in the tobacco and that the cigarettes actually help the lung. You can buy them in stores in his home country but your character rolls his own.

He is just wrong about the safety thing, but he is pretty convincing. He is a charming and persuasive guy and the clove cigarettes actually smell good.

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    $\begingroup$ The "different smell" thing could totally be a plot mechanic too. $\endgroup$
    – Criggie
    Nov 7 at 0:27
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Your character's home region has something more dangerous than lung cancer

In this situation, your character's home region has a parasite which inhabits most adults and primarily lives in the lungs. The parasite is impossible to detect, remove or fight with their existing medical technology, BUT for some reason, it can't handle smoke from a specific herb found in the same region. the smoke doesn't fully kill the parasite, but it subdues it to a point where people who smoke that herb on an hourly basis when awake will be able to survive. The parasite also absorbs most of the harmful substances in the smoke, leading to people thinking that the cigarettes are mostly safe to smoke. but in reality, the cigarettes are just as deadly, but due to the parasite it's mostly harmless. And due to the herb, the parasite is also mostly harmless. And the medical science is not yet advanced enough to know about the parasite or the special properties of the herb.

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  • $\begingroup$ Very nice idea. There is a benefit that's greater than the bad side effect. That is actually the case with most medicine, in fact most likely with anything you ingest (e.g. even oxygen has bed side effects and life on Earth needed gazillions of years to adapt to this poison, which is why you want to eat anti-oxidants; but the benefits of oxygen greatly outweigh the bad side effects, and within only two or three minutes :-) ). $\endgroup$ Nov 7 at 17:04

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