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Tobacco trails: How popes past, present influenced the plant’s journey

An antique tabletop cigar cutter and some cigars are seen on display in a photograph taken May 18, 2023, at the Museum of the Tobacco Shop in Rome. In 1655, Pope Alexander VII established a monopoly over tobacco throughout the Papal States; it was the first nation-state to put tobacco under state control as a source of revenue. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — World No Tobacco Day is observed every May 31 to highlight the harmful effects of tobacco on people’s health and the environment.

Because of the growing evidence of its dangers, St. John Paul II first banned smoking inside all Vatican buildings, including private offices, corridors and any rooms open to the public in 2002. And Pope Francis banned the sale of cigarettes in Vatican City State in 2018. Cigars, for now, are still available.

But centuries ago, when tobacco and its use by Indigenous communities were first discovered during Christopher Columbus’ expeditions to the Americas, the plant was warmly welcomed in Europe for its pleasurable and purported curative properties.

The Catholic Church played a major role in bringing tobacco to Italy, which is still the number one producer of raw tobacco in the European Union today.

It all started when Cardinal Prospero Santacroce, who was the papal nuncio to both Portugal and France, met Jean Nicot, France’s ambassador to Portugal, in Lisbon in 1561.

Tobacco from the Americas first reached Spain and Portugal through its explorers. And Nicot was such an avid enthusiast, he cultivated the plants in the royal gardens in Lisbon and convinced the French aristocracy, especially the Italian-born Queen Catherine de’ Medici of France, of its “miraculous” benefits. The formal botanical name for the tobacco plant, “Nicotiana,” comes from his name.

Also convinced of its benefits, Cardinal Santacroce brought tobacco to Rome in 1561, according to information provided to the public by a newly opened Museum of the Tobacco Shop in Rome. The tobacco “powder” or snuff became known as “Santacroce powder” or “santa polvere,” that is, “holy powder.”

Pope Pius IV tasked Cistercian monks with growing tobacco in the Lazio region in the 16th century, and other monastic communities started growing the crop in other regions in Italy.

It was Cistercian Father Benedetto Stella who published a 480-page magnum opus in 1669 titled simply, “Tobacco,” detailing its “origin, history, cultivation, preparation, varieties, characteristics, virtues and ‘versus'” or “cons.”

In fact, by that time, clear camps of opposition to tobacco use had formed, most notably against its use before or during Mass. Pope Urban VIII responded to fierce local complaints and banned its use in churches in the Diocese of Seville in 1642. His successor, Pope Innocent X, banned tobacco use inside St. Peter’s Basilica, but Pope Benedict XIII removed the penalty of possible excommunication in 1725.

On a moral level, the Catholic Church has never defined smoking as a sin, and the restrictions at the time seemed more concerned with problems of decorum and the dirty detritus tobacco use left behind.

On a fiscal level, however, one pope made a bold, innovative move, seeing the role tobacco could play in funding a state’s coffers.

Pope Alexander VII signed a decree soon after he was elected in 1655 establishing a monopoly over tobacco throughout the Papal States: it was the first nation-state to put tobacco under state control as a source of revenue, according to research by the Museum of Tobacco Shops.

That meant that in addition to the taxes levied on tobacco products, the Papal States reaped large profits from giving out commercial licenses to sellers and from fines to those operating without authorization.

The licensing contracts also included the sale of salt, whose price to the public was carefully controlled by the Papal States as it was considered a necessity.

Pope Benedict XIV had the first tobacco factory built in Rome in the mid-18th century in the city’s more rural Trastevere neighborhood where it was powered by water from a fountain on the Janiculum hill.

By 1859, Blessed Pius IX decided to consolidate the three small and decrepit factories in Trastevere into one brand new processing plant that included housing nearby for workers and amenities like a nursery onsite for the women and mothers who worked there, Irene Ranaldi, an expert in urban sociology, told Catholic News Service May 18.

The new building, completed in 1863, included a vast square the pope named after his family, Mastai. And today it is the headquarters of Italy’s Agency for Customs Duties and State Monopolies.

The tobacco factory would be the last building built by a pope in the Papal States, she said, as just seven years later, the last of the Papal States and Rome fell to the independence movement and the unification of Italy was complete.

Still today, the building’s facade reminds passersby of its original purpose. A Latin inscription reads: “Supreme Pontiff Pius IX constructed this workplace from the ground up in 1863 for the processing of nicotine leaves.”

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