Nowadays we are well aware of the dangers involved with smoking. Despite this, cigarettes were once recommended by medical professionals as valid treatments for a variety of complications…including asthma.  Actually, the idea of using smoke to treat a lung condition was an ancient concept stemming from the belief that warm smoke would combat the effects brought on by a cold lung (“Asthma Cigarettes”). As smoking gained popularity in Europe and the Americas physicians and apothecaries began experimenting with the idea that smoking was a promising and readily-available remedy (Wood). Cigarettes were used to cure everything from the common cold, lethargy, asthma, diseases of the throat, and much more. As outrageous as it sounds though, asthma was treated with asthma cigarettes for decades and it wasn’t until the invention of the metered dose inhaler that people started to abandon this method of treatment. Of course, smoking with asthma will exacerbate the condition and may cause life threatening attacks. So,how in the world did asthma cigarettes ever become an accepted treatment?

An 1890 Dr. Batty’s advertisement for asthma cigarettes. Image credit: CBS News

Smoke and Mirrors?

Asthma cigarettes contained no nicotine, but instead were filled with herbs (some of the most common deriving from the nightshade family). The herb belladonna and stramonium contained properties that could dilate the small airways and relieve the person of their asthma-related symptoms (“Asthma Cigarettes”).  Smoking was widely practiced in Europe by the nineteenth century and during this time Dr. James Anderson and his colleague were busy publishing an article about the promise of asthma cigarettes (“Asthma Cigarettes”). One of the major downsides to this remedy, besides inhaling smoke into damaged lungs was the fact that people could easily overdose on stramonium. Effects of the herbs also included rapid heart rate, hallucinations, dilated pupils, and anxiety (“Asthma Cigarettes”). This trend also encouraged people to smoke since physicians were recommending cigarettes as a type of medicine. Smoke was used in medicine for a long time and even gained newfound popularity in the form of smoke enemas. Unfortunately, it would be a long time before the effects of smoking were fully understood in both the public and medical spheres. 

Just a few decades ago hospitals actually sold cigarettes to patients. Many doctors even posed in cigarette advertisements seen in newspapers. Image credit: Vintage News Daily.

Asthma Today:

Treatment for asthma like we see today did not exist until the 1950s. George Maison, president of Riker Laboratory, had a young daughter with asthma. She had grown tired of the cumbersome treatments and questioned her father why the medicine couldn’t be made into a type of mist for her lungs to absorb (“Inhaler (1956)”). Inspired by this, Maison gave his pharmaceutical team the task of developing a canister that could administer a dose of medicine to the lungs easily (“Inhaler (1956)”). Today, metered dose inhalers are a staple in the treatment of asthma. 

Putting Out Cigarettes:

It wasn’t until the mid to late 1920s that a rise in concern over the effects of smoking began making a public appearance. Reports during this time were rarely published due to the fact that many newspapers did not want to lose out on the business of running cigarette company ads (“A Brief History of Smoking”). By the 1960s many studies came out showing a correlation between smoking cigarettes and complications such as cancer (Wood). As a result of a heightened awareness of the dangers of smoking, hospitals have since stopped selling cigarettes to patients, packages are sold with warning labels, and there are regulations put into place about where you can and cannot smoke in public areas. 

If that didn’t make you thankful for modern medicine then I don’t know what will!

Until Next Time



“A Brief History of Smoking.” Cancer Council. Accessed 25 January, 2021.

“Asthma Cigarettes.” Medical History-Blog Spot. 29 November 2014. Accessed 25 January, 2021.

“Inhaler (1956)”). British Society for Immunology. Accessed 25 January, 2021.

Wood, Matthew. “A Medical History of Smoking, From Cure to Killer.” Wellcome Collection. 2 April, 2019. Accessed 25 January, 2021.

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