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Cafe Scientifique

Cafe Scientifique: Tobacco: Shape Shifting Substance from South America

Amongst many indigenous communities in South America, its place of evolutionary origin, tobacco is widely regarded as a shamanic ‘master plant’, a gift of the gods that is crucial for dealing effectively with the spirit world. This is in stark contrast to the plant’s colonial history, and its contemporary exploitation by the forces of corporate and state-sponsored global capitalism.

In my talk, I will focus on tobacco as a plant with agency and the ability to assume different shapes according to the political and economic circumstances in which it is found and which it helps to form. This has had disastrous consequences for human health and well-being worldwide. How has such an apparently humble plant managed to conquer the world? What are the latest manifestations of its shape-shifting abilities?  What needs to happen if we are ever to put this particular genie back in its lamp and consider seriously ‘a world without tobacco’? 

Andrew Russell is an Associate Professor (Reader) in the Department of Anthropology, Durham University, where he is a member of the Anthropology of Health Research Group and degree tutor for the MSc in Medical Anthropology.  He is interested in interdisciplinary and participatory research approaches to public health issues, particularly tobacco control, in which he has conducted research at local, regional, national and international levels.  He works collaboratively with Fresh Smoke Free North East, the UK’s first tobacco control office, and with the Framework Convention Alliance, the civil society consortium supporting the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.  He has recently become involved in interdisciplinary research into non-communicable chronic respiratory illnesses more generally, through the Wellcome Trust funded ‘Life of Breath’ project (

Tue 20 Mar


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