Marlboro Man in the Eastern Bloc

Inhaling the smoke of tobacco leaves, which is often mentioned as ‘brown gold’, has a cultural history of about 5-7000 years. Smoke can be made by a pipe, a cigar, a cigarette or a nargile, but people consume tobacco in the form of taking snuff or maccabaw and chewing quid as well. How did smoking become an inevitable part of our cultural history? How did Hungary ascend to the top of tobacco industry and how did it vanish slowly? This short resume about the history of smoking is going to shed light on the questions.

Tobacco starts its world conquest

The French ambassador Jean Nicot – godfather of nicotine later – was the first to send some tobacco seeds to Europe, in order to grow medicinal herbs from them. After spreading in Europe and on global level, tobacco often became the object of bans and persecutions. Consumers were sometimes punished cruelly for having enjoyed smoking, though the health risks were hardly known back then. Devotees of smoking could not be dissuaded by austerity. Certain countries issued a monopoly for growing and trading the plant, because they smelled good financial opportunities in tobacco. After the industrial revolution, this product could not miss its fate either, and the industrialised tobacco cultivation and processing began.


Flourish in Hungary

The ritual of smoking reached Hungary in the 16th-17th centuries – due to Turkish influence presumably. At the same time, tobacco plant growing also started, as the soil and climate of the country are both excellent for this agricultural activity. Keresztély Fuchs established his tobacco factory in Síp Street – it was the oldest tobacco factory in Pest. The Austrian-Hungarian tobacco monopoly was introduced in 1851. It regulated the industry and created several state factories in Hungary. The mills of the Hungarian Royal Tobacco Factory started operating as of the middle of the 19th century. There was a time, when 22 tobacco factory operated in Hungary: the factory in Erzsébetváros (financed by selling the Fuchs factory), the one in Ferencváros (moved to Lágymányos later), and the others in Óbuda, Fiume, Debrecen, and later on factories in Pécs, Pápa, Eger, Szeged, Szentgotthárd, Munkács, Kőbánya, etc. Even a smoking paper factory called Modiano was opened in Váci Road, Budapest in 1932.


Those smoky fifties and sixties…

During the 1860s, the cigarette started spreading in Hungary, coming directly from the factory of Fiume. At the turn of the century, there were initiatives to cut down on the nicotine content of cigarettes, which could be harmonised with the enjoyability of tobacco goods by the 1930s; and the Nikotex products were traded then. Filter-tipped cigarettes also appeared in that decade. After the war and socialisation, the period of cigarettes with talkative names like Munkás (worker) and Terv (plan) arrived. The oval-cross-sectional Kossuth cigarette was launched on the centenary of the 1948-49 revolution and war of independence. They did not lay much emphasis on quality and packing; the unfiltered cigarettes were packed in rough brown paper. Cigar production was held in, because cigars could be imported from the comradely Cuba. Meanwhile, Marlboro Man was born in the USA. The advertisement figure linked smoking with masculinity for many decades. The legendary Fecske (swallow) was launched in 1962 and it was promoted exaggeratedly as the first filtered cigarette. Since then, people took to filtered cigarettes advertised as health protecting.


Symphonia vs. Szofi

The ‘great hit’ of the 1970s Symphonia was developed in Debrecen. Although the brand was created in 1921, it became popular later when the filtered type was launched. It was so widespread that it sometimes appeared in the pop culture as well: ‘Thirty-five Symphonias, my mouth stinks of nicotine’ – sang Tamás Cseh in 1977, leaving the contemporary life sentiment in his lyrics to the after-ages. Shortly afterwards, the rival Sopianae – better known as ‘brown Szofi’ – was born in Pécs. At the end of the 1970s, Marlboro was started to be produced by a licence in Eger, and a bit later Multifilter too. In the following decades, factories were making experiences, launching several versions of brands – the most interesting one was probably the short-lived filtered Sopianae with vitamin C content.


After the change of regime, private – mainly foreign – international companies overtook factories. Since 1992, the tobacco factory of Pécs has been the affiliate of the British American Tobacco. Sopianae and Fecske are still on the production palette, as well as the international Pall Mall. The tobacco factory of Debrecen was wound up by its new owner the Imperial Tobacco in 2004. The mill of Eger was purchased by the Philip Morris International, and was closed down in 2005.

Smoking in the elite and the popular culture

Nicotine is not only an addictive poison, but also a stimulant: it improves mental functions and reduces sleepiness. That might be a reason why our great philosophers and authors like Jean-Paul Sartre, Kurt Vonnegut, Jean-Luc Godard were often chain-smokers; smoking used to be a part of their characters. Smoking in the film art – which is often considered as a taboo nowadays – was a tool of a great deal of iconic figures, scenes and songs. The silent American male icons: Humphrey Bogart and James Dean; the divas like Marlene Dietrich and Katalin Karády; or the fictional characters like Columbo and his essential cigars, Maigret and his pipes, John McClane, James Bond (although he has already ‘quit smoking’), Marla Singer and the constant smoke cloud, or the incessantly whiffing Gandalf and the hobbits.

‘Stop it!’


In Hungary, the health-damaging effect has been written on the cover of tobacco products since 1978, and the text has been growing on the boxes. During the 1980s, a campaign was started against the cigarette on the TV, which is probably unknown for today’s younger generations. The protection of non-smokers has increased since 2012: smoking inside restaurants or places of amusement, at workplaces, on trains, platforms and in bus stops was banned that time. Since 2013, tobacco products can be bought only at special tobacco shops and authorities are trying to deter smokers by rising prices continuously. Nowadays, there are plans to make the packaging of tobacco products uniform.


Translated by Zita Aknai



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