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A man smoking a cigarette

Research by our Anthropology department has provided the inspiration for a podcast drama looking at the history of smoking and tobacco addiction.

‘Tobias and Syd’, spans several centuries following a time travelling woman called Syd who is lured into an addictive relationship with the shape-shifting Tobias.

During its journey through the ages, the play looks at the relationship tobacco has with slavery and colonialism and also explores the notion of romance, from the seduction of smoking to the beginnings of an LGBTQ+ relationship.

The drama partly draws on the research work of Professor Andrew Russell who tells us more here.

Q: ‘Tobias and Syd’ takes ideas from your book Anthropology of Tobacco. Tell us about your research in this area.

A:  My research with tobacco began back in 2005 when the North East of England became the first region in the country to develop a dedicated tobacco control office – Fresh – bringing stop smoking services, health education and lobbying activities under one umbrella organisation. That led to a number of research projects such as how to chart the effects of an office like this compared to other parts of the country without one, young people and tobacco use, and contraband and counterfeit tobacco. From there my interests expanded out into tobacco at the global level, specifically the WHO’s path-breaking ‘Framework Convention on Tobacco Control’, and I have also become increasingly interested in tobacco production, heritage and legacy issues (e.g. alternative livelihoods to tobacco in India, former tobacco growing communities in Australasia).  My book draws on all these facets and more, such as the place of tobacco in indigenous communities in the Americas, the history of tobacco’s spread around the world, and the power of tobacco in its engagement with people, corporations and even tobacco control. It’s a fascinating area that never ceases to offer new and fruitful research directions.   

Q: How does it feel to see your research feature in a dramatic production and what impact do you hope ‘Tobias and Syd’ will have?

A:  I was absolutely delighted when Elspeth Penny, director at 2BU Productions, stepped forward and said she liked my ideas and could see their dramatic potential. ‘Tobias and Syd’ was one of three plays on health-related topics that she drafted using a grant from Arts Council England. They were all ‘scratch’ performed at the Puppet Place in Bristol in February 2022 and the audience was asked to vote for which one should be taken forward as a full podcast. ‘Tobias and Syd’ came out tops!  We hope the play and associated events will stimulate fresh discussions on a subject that some people may think has become a bit ‘old hat’. With the arrival of vapes and other controversial products on the scene, they couldn’t be more wrong!  

Q: What are your future plans for your research?

A:  Let’s see – I am becoming increasingly interested in the challenges of climate change as well as tobacco.  Maybe people have become as addicted to carbon as they have been to tobacco?  Whatever, it seems like we need to think very carefully about emissions of all sorts and their implications for global and planetary health, the subject of our new MSc degree in Anthropology.

Find out more

  • Andrew Russell is a Professor in the Department of Anthropology and author of the book Anthropology of Tobacco.

  • ‘Tobias and Syd’ has been produced by 2BU Productions. Click here to listen to the podcast which can also be found on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and other major podcast platforms. Find out more about the production and its related events, here. The project has been funded by Arts Council England and a Durham University Economic and Social Research Council Impact Acceleration Account.

  • Our Anthropology Department is one of the largest in the UK and is ranked 29th globally (QS World University Rankings by Subject 2022). Fieldwork is core to our taught programmes, and we offer research-led teaching and hands-on experience to equip our students with the knowledge and skills they need for a successful future. Feeling inspired? Visit our Anthropology webpages for more information on our undergraduate and postgraduate programmes and learn more about our MSc in Global and Planetary Health.

  • Learn more about Fresh.