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From the beginning of their mass production in the 1880s, few consumer products have had such a far-reaching impact as cigarettes. The cigarette was central in turning points in production technology, business methods, development of the modern tobacco industry, the development of epidemiology, the role of consumption in society, and, in no small way, the health of millions of people.


The cigarette's ancestry spans back to pre-Colonial South and Central America where among the Maya smoking tobacco was commonly wrapped in banana skin, bark, and maize leaves. The Spanish brought these papalettes back to Europe and replaced the maize-wrappers with fine paper. From at least the 1830s, papalettes crossed into France where the name "cigarette" was adopted by the French tobacco monopoly in 1845. In addition to changing the name, the French monopoly also changed the type of tobacco used in cigarettes after smokers were found to prefer American to French tobacco, which was seen as too bitter. The French introduced cigarettes in Germany and Russia where American tobacco was blended with Turkish or Balkan tobacco. After becoming popular among its soldiers during the Crimean War (1853–1856), English firms began manufacturing cigarettes and U.S. production began after the Civil War (1861–1865). These hand-rolled cigarettes found only limited popularity and were considered luxury or novelty items. In the West, demand for hand-rolled Turkish, or "Oriental," cigarettes was attached to images of forbidden desire and supposed Oriental permissiveness. Other hand-rolled cigarettes, rolled by their smokers, were far less elegant and often fell apart while being smoked. Tobacco in the nineteenth century was overwhelmingly either chewed, snuffed, or smoked in cigar or pipe form.

Mass Production and Mass Consumption

The popularization of the cigarette began in the 1880s with the onset of the second industrial revolution. During the second industrial revolution skilled workers were replaced with technologically advanced machines that increased the speed of production and reduced unit costs. In 1881 James A. Bonsack patented the Bonsack Cigarette Machine, and by the late 1880s, when the most skilled cigarette rollers could make 3,000 cigarettes per day, one Bonsack Cigarette Machine could produce 120,000 cigarettes in the same amount of time. But the power and importance of the machine were not immediately recognized by tobacco companies. Adopting the machine was a significant risk because many believed that when a smoker chose a smoking product, part of his or her decision was based on the skill it took to roll or mix the tobacco. Indeed, several tobacco companies showed no interest in Bonsack's machine. Finally, in 1883 it was licensed to the French tobacco monopoly, in England to W.D. & H.O. Wills and later in 1885 to the American firm W. Duke, Sons & Co. headed by James B. Duke. Those tobacco companies that licensed Bonsack's machine went on to dominate their national markets and expand abroad.

In order to profit to the fullest from this technology, markets for machinemade cigarettes had to be created. In Britain and the United States, Duke and Wills promoted cigarettes through mass advertising. While advertising was not new, there is little question that more money was invested to advertise cigarettes than any previous product. Cigarette were "branded" products: They were known by unique symbols or names. These brand names in cigarette advertising appeared everywhere in newspapers and on walls of buildings, and, as technology developed, cigarettes were eventually advertised using electric signs and on the sides of trucks. Cigarette companies encouraged smokers to buy more cigarettes by giving away coupons in cigarette packages that were redeemable for prizes and by including collectable cards that showed images of historical moments, sports stars, and, most notably, scantily clad actresses. Tobacco companies dropped their prices, sold their products at a loss, and gave cigarettes away in the hopes of gaining new markets. In addition to the fact that an unprecedented amount of money was spent to promote cigarettes, this advertising was also notable because it targeted the popular classes as consumers rather than just the middle classes. These advertisements, combined with low prices, made the mass-produced cigarette part of the vanguard of the transition from bourgeois to mass consumption.


The search for new markets meant that these firms spread the cigarette around the world. Beginning in the 1890s, Duke in particular proved himself adept at inserting the cigarette into new cultures. While the company was creating a market share in the United States, Duke's American Tobacco Company (ATC) sought international markets. It did so by exporting cigarettes that were made in the United States and, where high tariffs made their cigarettes uncompetitive, by directly investing in foreign businesses and building cigarette factories abroad. In the 1890s, ATC established divisions in Australia, Canada, Japan, South Africa, and German using the same kinds of managerial hierarchies and business methods Duke had pioneered with great success in the United States.

In 1901, Duke looked to conquer the British market as well, creating Imperial tobacco though an alliance with Ogden's, an important competitor of Wills'. In retaliation Wills entered the American market and a massive round of price cutting and advertising ensued on both sides of the Atlantic until a truce was declared in 1902. According to the agreement, both companies were left to their national markets and the international markets were left to a jointly owned, newly created British American Tobacco Company (BAT). For ten years BAT was largely controlled by its American partners but in 1911 the British took an upper hand when the U.S. Supreme Court dissolved the ATC into competing companies after being found in violation of U.S. antimonopoly laws. Companies formed as a result of the ATC dissolution remain the dominant players within the international cigarette industry outside of countries such as France, Italy, Spain, Russia, China, and Japan, where state monopolies control their national markets.

Opposing the Cigarette

In many Western countries, the rise in popularity of the cigarette in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries drew organized opposition. Motives for attacks on the cigarette were strikingly similar: questions of moral and physical decline that easily fit into religious and nationalist frameworks. In European countries like England, France, and Germany fringes of the medical community put forward concerns over national degeneration due to cigarette smoking. These were marginal movements that only saw tangible results when coupled with other causes. In England, for example, anticigarette movements, coupled with panics over the health of soldiers during the Boer War and juvenile delinquency, prompted the government to pass an age restriction law in 1908. In the United States, Australia, and Canada, antismoking organizations were dominated and led by Evangelical Protestant women who sought to reform society. In the United States, these movements had some success. Between 1890 and 1930 fifteen states adopted laws that banned the sale, manufacturing, possession, and/or use of cigarettes and many other state legislatures debated the issue.

During World War I, these movements were undermined when cigarettes became linked to patriotism. In Allied countries during the war newspapers set up tobacco funds that allowed civilians to send cigarettes or tobacco to soldiers. These tobacco funds undermined antismoking movements in places like the United States and Canada when people who had previously opposed smoking changed their position and supported these funds. Similarly, anticigarette groups like the Red Cross and the Young Men's Christian Association distributed cigarettes to the troops.

The connection between patriotism and the cigarette also legitimized cigarettes among smokers, who were, at this point, almost exclusively male. At the turn of the twentieth century the cigarette was not seen as an entirely masculine smoke. According to etiquette, respectable men preferred the pipe or the cigar, allowing for a longer, more contemplative smoke. The cigarette was seen as diminutive and feminine. Increasingly, however, the speed and convenience of smoking a cigarette was regarded as more convenient for industrial societies. Though pipes in particular remained popular after World War I, it was the war that had the greatest impact on making cigarette smoking respectable for men. While all forms of tobacco were sent to soldiers, for a number of reasons cigarettes were particularly popular among soldiers: they required little attention after lit, unlike the cigar or pipe; they fit easily into a uniform pocket; and no special equipment was necessary to smoke them. In sum, cigarettes proved to be practical for army life and quickly became symbols of patriotic masculinity.

Women and the Cigarette

In the West, for the cigarette to become a truly mass consumption product they had to break through the highly gendered etiquette of smoking. During the rise of the cigarette in the late nineteenth century only men could respectably smoke. Women who smoked risked being labeled as barbarous or as prostitutes. Yet, at the same time, a group of largely middle-class women sought to challenge gender inequalities such as limitations on property rights, the right to vote, and access to liberal professions. One of the symbols used in their fight was the cigarette. Many of these "new women" asserted the right to smoke cigarettes in the same way as they asserted these other rights. By the 1920s the cigarette was linked to the image of the "flapper" and a broader association with a modern femininity. Cigarette manufacturers followed and promoted this image of the respectable female smoker. From the early twentieth century cigarette manufacturers advertised in women's magazines, but it would not be until the late 1920s, when smoking became more respectable for women, that manufacturers would openly advertise in mass circulating dailies. By this time, women in movies had already begun smoking cigarettes, likely adding greatly to the popularity of the cigarette among women.

The addition of women as cigarette smokers pushed the cigarette past other forms of tobacco to become the most popular way to consume tobacco. Indeed, despite the power of multinational cigarette companies in countries like Britain, the United States, and Canada, it took a change in etiquette in the 1920s and 1930s and the advent of respectable women smokers for the cigarette to be the tobacco of choice for a majority of smokers. During the 1920s cigarettes exceeded 50 percent of the tobacco consumed in Turkey, Japan, China, and Greece while elsewhere this did not occur until after World War II. In some countries the cigarette remains less popular than local tobacco products. In Norway cut tobacco continues to be popular, and in India, a cross between a small cigar and a cigarette, called bidis, are produced with dark, domestic tobacco, and continue to outpace cigarette consumption by a margin of 7 to 1. Globally, however, in the course of the twentieth century, the cigarette has become the dominant way in which tobacco is consumed and the tobacco industry is primarily a cigarette industry.

The Cigarette and Health

Part of the reason that the cigarette was easily accepted by both men and women alike was because its tobacco was milder than the tobacco used in pipes or to make cigars. Modern cigarettes used Bright leaf tobacco, originally cultivated in Virginia and North Carolina. Traditionally after harvesting, tobacco was either hung out to dry in barns (the air-curing method) or dried over wood fires (the fire-curing method). In contrast, Bright leaf was cured using extreme heat that was channeled through pipes into curing barns in a process known as flue-curing. This process results in a milder-tasting tobacco that was far easier to inhale than other tobaccos. This change altered the way in which nicotine entered the smoker's bloodstream and thus the speed of the physiological effect of smoking. With tobacco and pipes nicotine entered the bloodstream, for the most part, indirectly through the saliva whereas with cigarettes nicotine entered much more directly though the lungs.

In response to health concerns in the 1950s and 1960s, cigarette companies increasingly promoted filtered cigarettes like Kents and Viceroys and introduced similar new filtered brands like Winston and Salem. In Western countries during the 1970s and 1980s they also marketed low-tar and low-nicotine brands as less harmful alternatives to stronger brands. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the percentage of smokers in most developed countries has begun to decline. However, while in the developed world the cultural meaning of the cigarette has significantly changed, reducing the number of smokers in these countries, in the developing world, and in the world more generally, cigarette sales continue to rise worldwide.

See Also Additives; Camel; "Light" and Filtered Cigarettes; Lucky Strike; Marlboro; Menthol Cigarettes; Product Design; Virginia Slims.



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epidemiology a branch of medicine that investigates the causes and contributing factors of disease.

market share the fraction, usually expressed as a percentage, of total commerce for a given product controlled by a single brand; the consumer patronage for a given brand or style of product.

tariff a tax on imported goods imposed by the importing country to protect native industry from foreign competition, protect jobs and profits, and raise revenue. Tariffs typically raise consumer prices of effected products.

nationalism the belief that the narrow, selfish interests of one's country should supersede international standards of behavior.

bidis thin, hand-rolled cigarettes produced in India. Bidis are often flavored with strawberry or other fruits and are popular with teenagers.

air-curing he process of drying leaf tobacco without artificial heat. Harvested plants are hung in well-ventilated barns allowing the free circulation of air throughout the leaves. Air-curing can take several weeks. Burley tobacco is air-cured.

physiology the study of the functions and processes of the body.

tar a residue of tobacco smoke, composed of many chemical substances that are collectively known by this term.