The history of smoking

Nicotiana tabacum - a source of much debate


The plant known as tobacco or nicotiana tabacum has a history that stretches a long time back; although it was used by the native American tribes of North America it is believed that it was first used by the Mayan tribes of central America as far back as 6000 BC. It is a subgenus of the solanum or potato genus and so is a close relative to a number of poisonous plants including woody nightshade, mandrake and belladonna.

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Columbus meets the natives!

The first time Columbus landed in America in 1492 he was greeted by native north American tribes bearing gifts and among those gifts, he found some dried up tobacco plant leaves. They were inedible and smelled strange so Columbus ordered that they be tipped overboard. This was before he realised the value of this strange commodity and he later observed that this plant was used as gifts and for bartering.

Over a period of time, tobacco as a substance to smoke made its way back to Spain and by the fifteenth century Portuguese sailors were found growing tobacco plants at all their trading posts which were for personal use. By the middle of the fifteenth century, tobacco was being grown on a commercial scale in Brazil. Its use spread and so it became a valued commodity across Europe as well as the Americas. Tobacco was either smoked or taken as snuff and doctors had, by now, decided that it had medicinal properties; in 1571 a doctor called Nicolas Monardes published a book that made claims that tobacco could be used to treat 35 different illnesses!  Among the maladies that could be helped by using tobacco were hunger, stress, anxiety and even cancer.  

This view however was opposed by others, including our King James, and in 1604 a book by James himself called Counterblast to Tobacco, smoking was described as “a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black, stinking perfume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless”. In addition, Popes Urban VIII and Innocent IX excommunicated anybody found snuffing in church. The Ottoman Sultan Murad IV declared smoking to be a capital offense and Russians would, if caught smoking, have their noses cut off.

However, the acceptance of tobacco was given a massive leg up when it was accepted at the court of Catherine de Medici in 1560. The introduction of tobacco was made by a man named Jean Nicot whose name lent itself to the active ingredient in tobacco, nicotine; it was brought to the court of Queen Elizabeth I by Sir Walter Raleigh who in turn had picked up the habit from Sir Francis Drake.

The use of tobacco became widespread in the rest of the world until by the early seventeenth century tobacco was being grown in India, China, Japan, Southeast Asia, the middle east and West Africa. The spread continued like wildfire and by 1670 there was mass consumption of tobacco in England.


History of tobacco use in North America

By the eighteenth century, tobacco use was widespread in the US. This was the period when the American revolution was happening and in 1776 the Americans used tobacco as collateral for the loans they were being given by France to support their war effort.

In 1847, the tobacco company Philip Morris was established; this company was the first to start selling cigarettes that were hand rolled in Turkey. In 1849 J.E Liggett and Brother, another tobacco company became established and cigarettes became part of their tobacco portfolio. Chewing tobacco was still the most popular at this point and in 1875 R.J. Reynolds tobacco company was established and they produced only chewing tobacco. However, cigarettes were beginning to move to the forefront.


The age of the cigarette

Initially, cigarettes were sold as very expensive, luxurious goods for the elite of Europe. The invention however of the machine for rolling cigarettes in 1880 by an American man named James Bonsack changed everything and it was used by James Buchanan Duke, an American Industrialist; James Buchanan Duke founded the American Tobacco Company in 1890.  In England, Henry Wills began to use the machine in his bristol factory in 1883 and so he dominated the cigarettes trade in the UK within a short period of time. When in 1901 Duke attempted to enter the \British market which led to a ‘tobacco war’ between the two. It was as a result of this that British manufacturers united to form the Imperial Tobacco Company. Eventually, the standoff ended when Duke returned to the US and Imperial tobacco continued to supply the UK.  In 1902 the British American Tobacco company formed an alliance whereby Duke and the UK could market to the rest of the world.

The popularity of cigarettes became mainstream and was at the height of their popularity during the two world wars. As a goodwill gesture to the troops, the tobacco companies kept them supplied with millions of packets of cigarettes. It was seen as a generous and patriotic gesture and it was also creating millions of loyal addicts! In addition, cigarettes were included in C-rations which were given to soldiers containing prepared and wet food for use when field kitchens were not available.

Tobacco companies took advantage of the liberating days of the 1920s when women shortened their skirts to direct the marketing of cigarettes very heavily towards women.


Tobacco and the height of its popularity

The first half of the twentieth century was the most popular period for cigarettes and during this time there was little room for opposition to tobacco. In industrialised countries, as many as 50% of the population smoked but behind that figure, in the UK as many as 80% of men smoked. Smoking was socially acceptable - everywhere! In the home, at work, socially and since the 1920s had become more popular and socially acceptable for women to smoke.


Tobacco and public awareness of its dangers

It may be surprising to hear but the dangers of smoking tobacco have been known for some time and are nothing new. From when the habit began, people have noticed how addictive it was as well as how dangerous. As far back as the early seventeenth century, a Chinese philosopher pointed out caused ‘scorched lungs’, in the UK as far back as 1761 it was known that snuff users could contract cancer of the nose and in 1795 German doctors warned pipe smokers about lip cancer being a result of smoking.

By the 1930’s American doctors had linked lung cancer to smoking.


Tobacco today

It could be described as an international tragedy that the tobacco companies, despite restrictions in some countries, are still allowed to sell a dangerous and addictive drug causing endless pain, suffering and ultimately death to their customers.

In the long term, all that can be done is for society to educate the young so that they do not become addicts in the first place and so eventually the industry will disappear.

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