Tobacco: History of

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Tobacco generally refers to the leaves and other parts of certain South American plants that were domesticated and used by Native Americans for the alkaloid Nicotine. Tobacco plants are a species of the genus Nicotiana, belonging to the Solanaceae (nightshade) family; this also includes potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, belladonna, and petunias. Including plants used for tobacco, there are sixty-four Nicotiana species. The two widely cultivated for use as tobacco are Nicotiana tabacum and Nicotiana rustica, the latter of which contains the higher levels of nicotine.

Nicotiana tabacum

is, however, the major source of commercial tobacco, although it has been hybridized with other Nicotiana species, with resultant alteration in chemical composition. Nicotiana tabacum is a broad-leaf plant that grows from 3 to 10 feet (1-3 m) tall and produces 10 to 20 leaves radiating from a central stalk. Nicotiana rustica, also known as Indian tobacco, was first cultivated by Native Americans and was probably the tobacco offered to Columbus. The word tobacco comes into English (c. 1565) from the Spanish word tabaco, probably from the Taino word for the roll of leaves containing the N. rustica that the American natives of the Antilles smoked.


Tobacco was introduced to Europeans by Native Americans at the time of Columbus's exploration of the New World (1492-1506). The first written records of tobacco use date from this time, but there is archaeological evidence for tobacco's wide use in the Americas as early as c.e. 600-900. Native Americans considered tobacco as sacred, a plant used in social, fertility, and spiritual ritual. For example, tobacco was used for seasonal ceremonies, for sealing friendships, preparing for war, predicting good weather or good fishing, planting, courting, consulting spirits, and preparing magical cures. The desired effects of tobacco were a trance state, achieved by using the leaves in various ways, including smoking, chewing, snuffing, drinking (tobacco juice or tea), licking, and administering enemas.

Acute nicotine poisoning was a central aspect of the practice of shamanism in many parts of South America. South American shamans would smoke or ingest tobacco to the point of producing a nicotine-mediated trance or coma. The dose of nicotine could be titrated to produce a coma state resembling death, but from which the shaman would recover. Recovery from apparent death enhanced the perception of the shaman's magical powers.

In 1492 Columbus encountered natives in Hispaniola smoking tobacco in the form of large cigars. Enticed by the sacred and special regard in which they held tobacco, Columbus's crew experimented with tobacco smoking and soon became enthusiasts. Tobacco was brought back to Europe and, within a few decades, its use spread. People smoked it in the form of cigars and pipe and used it as snuff or chewing tobacco. Within forty years of Columbus's arrival, Spaniards were cultivating tobacco in the West Indies. Tobacco use then became widespread in Europe and in Spain and Portugal's American colonies by the late 1500s.

In 1570 the tobacco plant had been named nicotiana after Jean Nicot, the French ambassador to Portugal who introduced tobacco to France for medicinal use. Tobacco was said to be useful in the prevention of plague and as a cure for headache, asthma, gout, ulcers, scabies, labor pains, and even cancer. In the late 1500s, Sir Walter Raleigh popularized the smoking of tobacco for "pleasure" in the court of Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558-1603); from there it spread to other parts of England.

James I of England (reigned 1603-1625), who succeeded Queen Elizabeth, was strongly opposed to tobacco use and wrote the first major antitobacco treatise, entitled "Counterblast to Tobacco," in 1604. King James described tobacco as "a custome loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black stinking fume there of nearest resembling the horrible stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless." Despite James's opposition, however, tobacco use flourished. Eventually, even James lessened his opposition to tobacco because of the lucrative income from its taxation.

During the 1600s, tobacco use had spread throughout Europe, Russia, China, Japan, and the west coast of Africa. Over the centuries, draconian penalties for tobacco use were occasionally promulgated. For example, Murad the Cruel of Turkey (1623-1640) ordered that tobacco users be beheaded, quartered, and/or hanged. Nevertheless, smoking persisted. In the American colonies, tobacco became the most important export crop and was instrumental in the economic survival of the colonies.

By the nineteenth century, tobacco production was a mainstay of American capitalism. Most tobacco was smoked as cigars or in pipes, or used as snuff. Cigarettes were hand rolled. A skillful worker could roll four cigarettes per minute. Cigarette smokers were primarily boys or women, and smoking was a behavior confined to the lower socioeconomic class. The invention of the cigarette rolling machine by James Bonsack in 1881 made tobacco use inexpensive and convenient. Bonsack went into business with W. B. Duke and Sons in Durham, North Carolina. Together they improved the machine; by April 30, 1884, the device could roll 120,000 cigarettes per day.

Just as cigarettes were becoming widely available and affordable, tobacco manufacturers strongly promoted their use. Massive advertising campaigns, government issue of cigarettes to soldiers during the world wars, glamorization of cigarettes in motion pictures, and the gradual incorporation of women into the smoking market increased the popularity of cigarette smoking in the United States and around the world. Smoking rates peaked in the United States for men in 1955, with 50 percent of men smoking, and in 1966 for women, with 32 percent of women smoking. As a result of clever marketing by the cigarette companies, smoking at that time was considered to be sophisticated, glamorous, individualistic, and even healthful.

While there had been occasional reports on the health hazards of cigarette smoking from the time of King James, the first large-scale studies documenting the link between cigarette smoking and cancer appeared in 1952 (Doll & Hill) and 1956 (Wynder et al.). Subsequently, hundreds of studies have shown that cigarette smoking accounts for 30 percent of cancersincluding some cancers of the lung, mouth, throat, esophagus, bladder, and kidney, as well as some leukemia; and that it is the cause of some heart and vascular disease, stroke, emphysema, chronic obstructive lung disease, and other health problems. In 1962 the Royal College of Physicians in the United Kingdom, and in 1964 the U.S. surgeon general, issued reports on smoking and health, indicating that cigarette smoking most probably caused some lung cancers and other health problems. These reports mark the beginning of modern public-health efforts to control tobacco use.

Subsequent landmarks in tobacco control in the U.S. include the following:

  • 1965Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act (PL89-92) required health warnings on cigarette packages and an annual report to Congress on the health consequences of smoking.
  • 1969Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act (PL91-222) strengthened health warnings on cigarette packs and prohibited cigarette advertising on television and radio.
  • 1973Little Cigar Act (PL93-109) extended the broadcast ban on cigarette advertising to little cigars.
  • 1984Comprehensive Smoking Education Act (PL98-474) required rotation of four specific health warnings and mandated that the cigarette industry provide a list of cigarette additives.
  • 1986Comprehensive Smokeless Tobacco Health Education Act (PL99-252) required three rotating health warnings on Smokeless Tobacco packages and advertisements, a list of additives and nicotine content in smokeless tobacco products, prohibited smokeless tobacco advertising on television and radio, and mandated reports to Congress on smokeless tobacco and a public information campaign on the health hazards of smokeless tobacco.

The four warnings currently rotated among cigarette packs are the following:

  1. Surgeon General's Warning: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, and May Complicate Pregnancy
  2. Surgeon General's Warning: Quitting Smoking Now Greatly Reduces Serious Risks to Your Health
  3. Surgeon General's Warning: Smoking by Pregnant Women May Result in Fetal Injury, Premature Birth, and Low Birth-Weight
  4. Surgeon General's Warning: Cigarette Smoke Contains Carbon Monoxide.

The three smokeless tobacco warnings that are rotated are these:

  1. Warning: This Product May Cause Mouth Cancer
  2. Warning: This Product May Cause Gum Disease and Tooth Loss
  3. Warning: This Product Is Not a Safe Alternative to Cigarettes

As a consequence of education and other public health activities, tobacco use has declined in the United States. In the late 1900s, 25 percent of Americans, about 43 million people, smoke. About 45 million former smokers have quit. Unfortunately, adult smoking rates have been declining very slowly in recent years because adolescents are taking up smoking at undiminishing rates and grow up to become addicted adult smokers.

(See also: Advertising and Tobacco Use ; Nicotine Delivery Systems for Smoking Cessation )

Neil L. Benowitz

Alice B. Fredericks

Revised by Andrew J. Homburg

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Tobacco: History of

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