In The Know Zone

Tobacco History

A Brief History of Tobacco Use

(Adapted from’s "Tobacco Timeline" by Gene Borrio.)

The native people of the Americas considered tobacco a gift from the Great Spirit, and they used it in their religious practices. Today, experts believe that the tobacco we know began growing about 8,000 years ago. Although other plants around the world contain small amounts of nicotine, the drug in tobacco, tobacco is native only to the Americas.

An early explorer of the Americas, Rodrigo de Jerez, brought the habit of smoking tobacco back to Spain around 1504. By 1511, smoking was popular throughout Spain, and by 1531, Europeans were cultivating tobacco, the "sweet" Nicotiana tabacum, in Santo Domingo.

Beginning around the mid-1500s, tobacco was used as a medicine. It was given to patients in a variety of ways, from smoking to enemas. It was believed to be an effective treatment for colic, nephritis, hysteria, hernia, and dysentery, toothache, falling fingernails, worms, bad breath, lockjaw, and cancer, among other illnesses. As early as 1602, however, a connection was made between the cancers and lung diseases suffered by chimney sweeps (caused by soot) and illnesses that could have been caused by tobacco.

As its popularity grew, tobacco gained value. In the American Colonies, tobacco was used as money throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, in Virginia in 1619, the very first American Thanksgiving celebrated a good tobacco crop.

Acceptance of tobacco use was less than unanimous. In 1628, Shah Sefi punished two merchants for selling tobacco by pouring hot lead down their throats. In 1634 Czar Alexis of Russia created new penalties for smoking. For the first offense, the punishment was whipping, a slit nose, and transportation to Siberia. The punishment for the second offense was execution. A Chinese regulation of 1634 made the use or distribution of tobacco punishable by decapitation. By the 1650s, however, snuff became popular throughout China, and it remained popular there until the early 20th century.

In 1753, Swedish Botanist Carolus Linnaeus named the tobacco plant genus, nicotiana, and also described two species, nicotiana rustica and nicotiana tabacum. He named the genus after Nicot de Villemain, an ambassador who introduced the plant to France in about 1550.

Following a long period of the popularity of snuff, cigars became the most popular tobacco product in England in about 1830. In 1826, England imported about 26 pounds of cigars, but in 1830, 250,000 pounds of cigars were imported. Cigars gained popularity in the northern United States not long after, with soldiers bringing Latin American cigars back with them after the Mexican War. In the southern states, chewing tobacco remained the most popular form.

The roots of the modern tobacco industry began in the mid 1800s with Philip Morris beginning to sell Turkish cigarettes in London, and J.E. Liggett establishing his tobacco business in St. Louis, Missouri. Matches, which made smoking more convenient, were also introduced at this time.

The R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company was founded in 1875. It produced several brands of chewing tobacco.

In 1884 James Bonsack received the patent for the first cigarette-rolling machine. Production speed increased from 2,000 a day to 120,000 a day. Bonsack went into business with the tobacco farmers Washington and James "Buck" Duke. That year, the Dukes alone produced 744,000 cigarettes, more than the national total in 1883.

Still, very little was known about the science of tobacco and its health effects. In 1889, the interaction between nicotine and nerve cells was reported on for the first time. Scientists wrote of the effects of nicotine on the ganglia in the brain. The study hypothesized that the brain has receptors and transmitters that respond to stimulation by specific chemicals, a revolutionary idea that proved to be correct. Unfortunately, the pace of scientific discovery was not as fast then as it needed to be to stop tobacco’s deadly march forward. That same year, lung cancer was still an extremely rare disease, with only 140 documented cases worldwide.

The early years of the 20th century were key in establishing Big Tobacco’s foothold in the United States. The Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906 prohibited the sale of adulterated foods and drugs, and mandated honest statement of contents on labels. Originally, nicotine was on the list of drugs, which would have meant that the Food and Drug Administration could have regulated its sale. Tobacco industry lobbying got nicotine removed from the list on the grounds that it was not used to cure, mitigate, or prevent disease, and was therefore not a drug.

World War I, in which the U.S. fought from 1917-1918, played a large part in addicting a generation of men. General John J. Pershing said that tobacco was "as indispensable (to the soldiers) as the daily ration (of food,)" and as a result soldiers were provided with all the free cigarettes they could smoke. Between 1910 and 1920, per capita consumption of cigarettes increased from 94 per year to 419 per year. In 1919, medical student Alton Ochsner was called in to observe lung cancer surgery because, he was told, he would probably never see a case of lung cancer again. He didn’t see another case for 17 years, but then he saw eight cases in six months. All of those men were smokers who had picked up the habit in World War I.

Cigarette consumption and lung cancer rates continued to grow hand in hand from about that time. For example, in 1930 the lung cancer rate for white men in the U.S. was 4.9 per 100,000, and by 1948 that number had grown to 27.1 per 100,000. During that same period, per capita consumption of cigarettes had gone from roughly 1,500 in 1930 to 3,600 in 1948.

While cigarettes were rapidly gaining popularity, a German scientist published, in 1929, the first statistical evidence of a lung cancer-tobacco link, based on case studies showing that lung cancer sufferers were likely to be smokers. The next convincing study about the connection between smoking and lung cancer was published in 1950 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA. It definitively linked smoking to lung cancer. Another study in the same issue that found that 96.5% of lung cancer patients interviewed were moderate heavy-to-chain-smokers. By 1955, a major CBS television program broadcast the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer and other diseases, but the news was slow to sink in. Consumption continued to rise.

Tobacco companies, in the mean time, continued to deny publicly any links between their products and cancer or other diseases, and to deny that nicotine is addictive. However, internal documents told a different story. Tobacco company Brown & Williamson’s general counsel wrote in 1963, "…nicotine is addictive. We are, then, in the business of selling nicotine, an addictive drug effective in the release of stress mechanisms."

In 1965, Congress mandated a gentle caution label on each cigarette pack. In 1967, a Surgeon General's Report concluded that smoking is the principal cause of lung cancer, and found evidence linking smoking to heart disease. Congress strengthened the cigarette labeling law in 1969, and again in 1970, when it was changed to read, "Warning: The Surgeon General Has Determined That Cigarette Smoking Is Dangerous to Your Health." Also in 1970, President Nixon signed a measure banning cigarette advertising on radio and television, to take effect in 1971. However, these laws also gave tobacco companies a comfortable margin to work in to increase their sales. The law read, "No requirement or prohibition based on smoking and health shall be imposed under State law with respect to the advertising or promotion of any cigarettes the packages of which are labeled in conformity with the provisions of this Act." In other words, as long tobacco companies’ ads and packaging carried the Surgeon General’s warning, they could face no other regulations in any state, and no state was allowed to prohibit any smoking in any area for health reasons.

Regardless, the 1970s saw the rise of nonsmokers’ rights in the United States. More and more, nonsmokers began to protest the clouds of cigarette smoke that filled every public space. The airline industry led the way in trying to make nonsmokers more comfortable. Pan American Airlines created the first nonsmoking section in 1969, TWA offered nonsmoking sections on all flights in 1970, and United Airlines followed suit in 1971. Other nonsmokers’ rights measures continued to be proposed throughout the 1970s, as it became more clear that nonsmokers suffered from others’ smoking. For example, the 1975 Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act prohibited "smoking in public places and at public meetings, except in designated smoking areas." It was the first law to require separation of smokers' and nonsmokers. A report commissioned by the Tobacco Institute in 1978 stated that the nonsmoker’s rights movement was "the most dangerous development to the viability of the tobacco industry that has yet occurred."

Evidence of tobacco’s dangers and regulations to protect users and non-users continued to grow. In 1986 the U.S. Surgeon General's Report discussed the health consequences of secondhand smoke and declared that smokeless tobacco is cancer-causing and addictive. Congress banned smoking on U.S. flights of less than two hours beginning in 1988, and by 1990, this ban was extended to all U.S. flights under six hours, except to Alaska and Hawaii. The law also banned smoking on interstate buses. Canadian legislation of 1988 and 1989 prohibited tobacco advertising, ensured smoke-free workplaces, and added one of four strong health warnings to all cigarette packs.

Beginning with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 1993 declaration of cigarette smoke as a Class-A carcinogen, the mid-1990s saw a number of new regulations and subsequent lawsuits. The FDA sought the right to regulate tobacco and its advertising, and the five largest tobacco companies, the advertising industry, and smokeless tobacco manufacturers U.S. Tobacco Co. and Conwood Co filed suit against the FDA proposal immediately.

However, in 1994 a large number of tobacco industry internal documents convinced Liggett Tobacco to settle lawsuits with 22 states. Liggett issued the following statement, "We at Liggett know and acknowledge that, as the Surgeon General and respected medical researchers have found, cigarette smoking causes health problems, including lung cancer, heart and vascular disease and emphysema. Liggett acknowledges that the tobacco industry markets to 'youth,' which means those under 18 years of age, and not just those 18-24 years of age."

In 1997, the major tobacco companies offered a settlement that would include FDA regulation, money for anti-smoking campaigns, and bans on vending machines and outdoor advertising. Ultimately the U.S. Senate rejected the settlement on the grounds that it would have projected the tobacco companies too much from other legal action. Lawsuits seeking compensation for tobacco-related pain and suffering and medical costs by individuals, states, insurers, and others have continued to go forward.

The Philip Morris tobacco company acknowledged in 1999 that "There is an overwhelming medical and scientific consensus that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema and other serious diseases in smokers…there is no safe cigarette…cigarette smoking is addictive, as that term is most commonly used today.'' However, no laws limit the big tobacco companies’ rights to market their products around the world. Many countries, especially developing countries, lack regulations against dishonest advertising strategies. In one of these countries, China, it is predicted that one-third of males now aged 0-29 will eventually die of tobacco-related diseases.

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