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History of Science reading group presents, Stephan Risi

Stephan Risi, a PhD candidate in History of Science at Stanford
Wed February 28th 2018, 12:00pm
Bldg 200 room 307

How Smoking Became Addictive (Against All Odds): Biology, Technology, and Culture in the Making of the Cigarette Century

Lunch will be served

abstract: Modern neuroscience suggests that nicotine is inherently addictive: given tobacco use, addiction is all but assured. In this narrative, nicotine is one of those wily molecules that hijack our brain’s reward systems. But nicotine could not be found in an easily addictive way for centuries: nicotine is first and foremost a poison that the tobacco plant evolved about 20 million years ago to kill insects, and a single drop of pure nicotine can end a person’s life. In fact, once nicotine enters a human body, we usually respond by coughing it up, by vomiting it out, by metabolizing it as quickly as possible. What, then, made nicotine addictive?

In this presentation, I argue that nicotine only became addictive between 1850 and 1950 as tobacco producers found--often accidentally--new technological ways of taming or circumventing our bodies’ initial response to nicotine while accentuating our brain’s pleasure and dependence responses. The story of how addiction was made unfolds in the intimate evolutionary ties that bind us to plants and insects, in the flue-curing barns of tobacco plantations, and in the technologies that made smoking both palatable and portable. By retracing the history of these technologies of addiction, it becomes clear that addictiveness is not inherent to a molecule. Instead, addictiveness comes to lie at the intersection of biology, technology, and culture.