History of Tobacco

Tobacco and tobacco-related products have a long history that stretches back to 6,000 BC. The plant today known as tobacco, or Nicotiana tabacum, is a member of the nicotiana genus – a close relative to the poisonous nightshade and could previously only be found in the Americas.

tobacco history - columbus and native americansIn 1492, Columbus was warmly greeted by the Native American tribes he encountered when he first set foot on the new continent. They brought gifts of fruit, food, spears, and more and among those gifts were dried up leaves of the tobacco plant. As they were not edible and had a distinct smell to them, those leaves, which the Native Americans have been smoking for over 2 millennia for medicinal and religious purposes, were thrown overboard.

However, Columbus soon realized that dried tobacco leaves are a prized possession among the natives, as they bartered with them and often bestowed them as a gift.

Rodrigo de Jerez and Luis de Torres are the first Europeans to observe smoking. It was on Cuba and Jerez becomes a staunch smoker, bringing the habit back with him to Spain.

History of Tobacco in Europe

Jerez’s neighbors were so petrified of the smoke coming out of his mouth and nose that he was soon arrested by the Holy Inquisition and held in captivity for nearly 7 years. However, thanks to a lot of seafarers at the time, smoking became an entrenched habit in both Spain and Portugal before long.

In the 15th century, Portuguese sailors were planting tobacco around nearly all of their trading outposts, enough for personal use and gifts. By mid-century they started growing tobacco commercially in Brazil – it was soon a sought-after commodity and traded across the ports in Europe and the Americas.

By the end of the 16th century, tobacco plant and use of tobacco were both introduced to virtually every single country in Europe. Tobacco was snuffed or smoked, depending on the preference and doctors claimed that it had medicinal properties. Some, such as Nicolas Monardes in 1571, went as far as to write a book to outline 36 specific ailments that tobacco could supposedly cure.

History of Tobacco in America

Tobacco products gained a strong foothold in the US somewhere around the Revolutionary War. War and tobacco go hand in hand as you will soon see and in 1776 it was used by the revolutionaries as collateral for the loans they were getting from France.

1847 was the year when Philip Morris was established in the UK. They were the first to start selling hand-rolled Turkish cigarettes but the practice was soon picked up by J.E. Liggett and Brother, an American company established in St. Louis in 1849. Even though chewing tobacco was the most popular form of tobacco in the 19th century (R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company was founded in 1875 and produced chewing tobacco, exclusively) cigarettes were slowly taking sway.

Cigarettes truly came into popularity after the invention of the cigarette-making machine by James Bonsack in 1881. He went into business James ‘Buck’ Duke and the American Tobacco Company was born. The ATC survives today as a part of British American Tobacco, a global company with reported revenues of 13, 104 billion in 2015.

Proliferation of Cigarettes

Cigarettes came to the height of their popularity during the First and the Second World War. Tobacco companies sent millions of packs of cigarettes to soldiers on the front lines, creating hundreds of thousands of faithful and addicted consumers in the process. Cigarettes were even included into soldiers’ C-rations – which contained mostly food and supplements, along with cigarettes.

The 1920s were also the period when tobacco companies started marketing heavily to women, creating brands such as ‘Mild as May’ to try to feminize the habit and make it more appealing to women. The number of female smokers in the United States tripled by 1935.

Smoking Hazards

Dangers associated with nicotine are nothing new. Ever since people started smoking, there were those far-sighted enough to suggest that the habit is dangerous and addictive. In the early 17th century a Chinese philosopher Fang Yizhi pointed out the dangers of smoking, noting that it caused ‘scorched lungs’. Sir Francis Bacon noticed that there was something very addictive about tobacco way back in 1610, saying that it’s a tough habit to kick – people back then did not know about the addictive nature of nicotine or that nicotine was even a component of tobacco.

In Great Britain, snuff users were warned about dangers of nose cancer as early as 1761 while German doctors started warning pipe smokers about the possibility of developing lip cancer in 1795. In the 1930s, American doctors started linking tobacco use to lung cancer and General Surgeon’s report from 1964 definitely states that smoking causes lung cancer in men.

Tobacco Today

Tobacco and tobacco products are more regulated today. Companies have lost countless lawsuits and are now forced to clearly label their products as having a detrimental effect on the health of a person. Also, tobacco advertising is severely limited and regulated.

Still, tobacco companies make billions of dollars in revenue every year, destroying the health of others. It’s estimated that there are around 1 billion tobacco users in the world today. The damage caused by this addiction and its peddlers numbers in trillions of dollars of health expenses and environmental damages and more effort has to be made to educate people, especially teenagers and young adults, about the dangers of smoking.

History of Tobacco Timeline

Here is a brief glimpse into tobacco history and events.

  • 6,000 BC – Native Americans first start cultivating the tobacco plant.
  • Circa 1 BC – Indigenous American tribes start smoking tobacco in religious ceremonies and for medicinal purposes.
  • 1492 – Christopher Columbus first encounters dried tobacco leaves. They were given to him as a gift by the American Indians.
  • 1492 – Tobacco plant and smoking introduced to Europeans.
  • 1531 – Europeans start cultivation of the tobacco plant in Central America.
  • 1558 – First attempt at tobacco cultivation in Europe fail.
  • 1571 – European doctors start publishing works on healthy properties of the tobacco plant, claiming it can cure a myriad of diseases, from toothache to lockjaw and cancer.
  • 1600 – Tobacco used as cash-crop – a monetary standard that lasts twice as long as the gold standard.
  • 1602 – King James I condemns tobacco in his treatise A Counterblast to Tobacco.
  • 1614 – Tobacco shops open across Britain, selling the Virginia blend tobacco.
  • 1624 – Popes ban use of tobacco in holy places, considering sneezing (snuff) too close to sexual pleasures.
  • 1633 – Turkey introduces a death penalty for smoking but it doesn’t stay in effect for long and is lifted in 1647.
  • 1650 – Tobacco arrives in Africa – European settlers grow it and use it as a currency.
  • 1700 – African slaves are first forced to work on tobacco plantations, years before they become a workforce in the cotton fields.
  • 1730 – First American tobacco companies open their doors in Virginia.
  • 1753 – Tobacco genus named by a Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus – nicotiana rustica and nicotiana tabacum named for the first time.
  • 1791 – British doctors find that snuff leads to increased risk of nose cancer.
  • 1794 – First American tobacco tax.
  • 1826 – Nicotine isolated for the first time.
  • 1847 – Philip Morris opens their first shop in Great Britain, selling hand-rolled Turkish cigarettes.
  • 1961 – First American cigarette factory produces 20 million cigarettes.
  • 1880 – Bonsack develops the first cigarette-rolling machine.
  • 1890 – American Tobacco Company opens its doors.
  • 1990 – 4 billion cigarettes are sold this year and manufacture is on the rise.
  • 1902 – Philip Morris starts selling cigarettes in the US – one of the brands offered is Marlboro.
  • 1912 – First reported connection between smoking and lung cancer.
  • 1918 – An entire generation of young men returns from war addicted to cigarettes.
  • 1924 – Over 70 billion of cigarettes are sold in the US.
  • 1925 – Philip Morris starts marketing to women, tripling the number of female smokers in just 10 years.
  • 1947 – Lorillard chemist admits that there is enough evidence that smoking can cause cancer.
  • 1950 – 50% of a cigarette now consists of the cigarette filter tip.
  • 1967 – Surgeon General definitively links smoking to lung cancer and presents evidence that it is causing heart problems.
  • 1970 – Tobacco manufacturers legally obliged to print a warning on the labels that smoking is a health hazard.
  • 1970 – 1990 – Tobacco companies faced with a series of lawsuits. Courts limit their advertising and marketing.
  • 1992 – Nicotine patch is introduced – in the following years more cessation products will start being developed.
  • 1996 – Researchers find conclusive evidence that tobacco damages a cancer-suppressor gene.
  • 1997 – Liggett Tobacco Company issues a statement acknowledging that tobacco causes cancer and carries a considerable health risk.
  • 1997 – Tobacco companies slammed with major lawsuits – ordered to spend billions of dollar on anti-smoking campaigns over the next 25 years predominantly focused on educating the young on dangers of smoking.
  • 1997 – For the first time in history a tobacco company CEO admits on trial that cigarettes and related tobacco products cause cancer. His name was Bennett Lebow.
  • 1990 – 2000 – Bans on public smoking come into effect in most states in America, as well as in other countries in the world.