Pope Urban VII: The Shortest Smoking Ban in History


The earliest depiction of a European man smoking, from Tabacco by Anthony Chute.

The earliest depiction of a European man smoking, from Tabacco by Anthony Chute.

424 years ago today, on the 27th of September 1590 there came to pass two new of records in history. It marked the end of what would be the shortest Papal reign in history, and it also marked the end of probably the shortest and earliest smoking bans in history. Giovanni Battista Castagna, before taking his more street-friendly rap name of Pope Urban VII, was the shortest serving pope in history, having the job a mere 13 days in total, from his appointment on the 15th of September 1590 until his death due to malaria 424 years ago today. A man of considerable esteem and renown for his piety and learning, his sudden death was no doubt considered as sad to his subjects as his appointment to Pope was jubilant- in only his short stay as the moderator of the Vatican and Catholic faith he achieved a lot, especially considered he was stuck down with the illness that would kill him on a couple of days after being appointed. One of his first acts was “to have a list made of all the poor in Rome that he might alleviate their needs”, not an easy task considering the population of Rome would have been roughly 90,000 at the time. After what probably amounted to a heck of a lot of list-related writers cramp, he ordered the bakers of Rome to make “larger loaves of bread and sell them cheaper”, mitigating their losses out of his own purse. Not done with his campaign of poverty-busting, he instigated the construction of public works around the city of Rome to provide jobs to those who didn’t have any. A strong opponent of nepotism, he forbade relatives from getting jobs in the curia (Roman courts and assemblies), paid off debts owed by the papacy and raised the wages of cardinals who received insufficient pay all out of his own pocket. Possibly the most progressive and modern order set down by our short-stay Pope however, was a ban on a pastime that had come to take over 16th century Europe. According to Jack E. Henningfield’s book An Old-Fashioned Addiction, Urban takes the number one spot for:

“the world’s first known public smoking ban in 1590, as [Pope Urban] threatened to excommunicate anyone who ‘took tobacco in the porchway of or inside a church, whether it be by chewing it, smoking it with a pipe, or sniffing it in powdered form through the nose’

I bet "Everytime you light up, the Pope curses you" would work better on cigarette packets

I bet “Every time you light up, the Pope curses you” would work better on cigarette packets than pictures of some lungs

What’s quite cool about this early ban comes from the fact that smoking laws, for whatever reason, sort of run contradictory to our idea of a more carefree past, such as the 30s and 40s when tobacco adverts were on every street, classy smoke-filled ballroom or casino and everyone from Tom and Jerry to Fred Flintstone were lighting up pipes, cigars and cigarettes. However, as we can see from Urban’s declaration, smoking bans and bans on tobacco in general are certainly nothing new. Tobacco itself was introduced to Europeans by explorer, trader and all round exploiter Christopher Columbus, who among other things, discovered the practice among native people of the New World in 1492. Upon setting foot for the first time on San Salvador island on October 12th, 1492, he was approached by natives who gifted him various items, including tobacco leaves. He later wrote in his journal:

“the natives brought fruit, wooden spears, and certain dried leaves which gave off a distinct fragrance.”

They then promptly threw them away, apparently not understanding the importance and value of these pungent leaves. Not long after this however, natives were observed smoking rolls of palm and tobacco leaves and the concept of smoking began to be understood and taken up by sailors in Columbus’s expedition. Over the next few years, the craze of tobacco smoking would begin to sweep the old world. By 1548, the Portuguese in Brazil were cultivating tobacco for commercial export. It’s use and popularity spread with the trade winds, with sailors and merchants taking the plant through the European continent and beyond. Europe had found its new addiction, and its popularity would instigate a trade and economy that would carve an extraordinarily profitable, exploitative and grizzly place in the history of the early Americas to an extent that is still felt to this day. It’s no surprise then that like anything new, profitable and addictive, as its popularity grew so did it’s opponents. It would not be long before this unregulated new pastime came under scrutiny.

From the Dutch 'Cruydeboeck', a Herbarium written in 1554 that presents the first known illustration of tobacco.

From the Dutch ‘Cruydeboeck’, a Herbarium written in 1554 that presents the first known illustration of tobacco (depicted as the plant on the top right).


The next bans or taxes relating to tobacco don’t come until a few years after Urban’s ban, with possibly the most famous opponent being King James the I of England (and IV of Scotland) in 1604. In his “Counterblaste to Tobacco,” he described the smoking habit as “A custom loathesome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black, stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.” He then proceeded to slap tobacco with a 4,000% tax increase. Before both Urban and James, warnings about the habit were already starting to appear. The 1586 book “De plantis epitome utilissima” offers one of the first known warnings about the dangers of tobacco, calling it a “Violent Herb”. Does this mean then that Urban VII, possibly hearing about the dangers of ‘baccy from De plantis epitome utilissima, hold the record for the first known ban on tobacco, way back in 1590? It actually seems that he doesn’t, and that he and King James were both beaten to the non-smoking punch by Urban’s own Church some 15 years earlier. In 1575, the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico brought in Legislation that banned any smoking within places of worship in the Spanish colonies. The act of smoking was no doubt considered rude and not part of the ‘dress code’ traditionally observed in churches, much like wearing a hat inside.

Phew! So we got there then, the first known ban on smoking was in 1575 Mexico, right?

Er, actually maybe not!

Yes, Mexico may have passed the fist law banning smoking in places of worship, but the first person to be locked up for smoking? To be banned from smoking? Well, that record goes to not only one of the first Europeans to set foot in the Americas, but also the very first European smoker! Let’s go back to Columbus, who after receiving gifts of fruit, spears and tobacco leaves from the natives on Salvador island on October 12th, 1492, threw those all important leaves away. However only a month after this fateful day,  a crewman by the name of Rodrigo De Jerez observed the natives wrapping dried tobacco leaves in palm or maize “in the manner of a musket formed of paper”. They then proceeded to “drink in the smoke” from the end of lit rolls. Jerez picked up the technique from these peer-pressuring locals and after traveling back to Spain on the Nina, introduced his crew to the habit. However Rodrigo didn’t find much luck with his new hobby upon his return to Spain. The locals in his home town, so frightened by the sight of Jerez exhaling smoke through his mouth and nose reported and had Jerez imprisoned in 1501 by the Spanish Inquisition, because “only the Devil could give a man the power to exhale smoke from his mouth”. By the time he was released  7 years later, Spain had been overtaken with the smoking craze. So maybe next time someone brings up these ridiculous nanny state laws of modern life forcing us to give up our proud smoking past time, not only can you correct them with your knowledge of early Mexican & Papal legislation, you can also follow-up with the poor tale of Rodigo De Jerez and the first instigators of a smoking ban; the fearful residents of Rodrigo’s hometown Ayamonte, way back in 1501.


But he lives on in the black, hacking lungs of smokers everywhere. God Bless Jerez.



One thought on “Pope Urban VII: The Shortest Smoking Ban in History

  1. Pingback: 10 Of The Shortest-Reigning Leaders In Historical past - Daily Trends And Viral News Today

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