History of Tobacco

Tobacco is a native plant of North and South America that is in the same family as the potato and pepper. The plant grows from tiny seeds that are carefully tended until the leaves are large enough to harvest and dry for use. Tobacco has a long history of use in the Americas and has been used as a medicine for many illnesses.

Early Mayans

Tobacco has been used for hundreds of years in the Americas. Carved stone drawings made by the Mayan Indians from 600 to 900 A.D  depict the use of tobacco. When the European explorers and conquistadors came to the New World, they were introduced to tobacco and it quickly became a popular substance.

Native Peoples

Christopher Columbus found Native Americans cultivating tobacco when he arrived in the Americas in 1492. In high doses, tobacco can have a slightly hallucinogenic effect. Native Americans used tobacco in their ceremonies to induce a spiritual state. Tobacco was used to mark a variety of occasions in peoples’ lives, from births to deaths, as well as to seal economic agreements. Tobacco was also used as a medicine, either, smoked, steeped into a tea or used as a poultice. These people used tobacco to treat headache, sores, fistulas, colds, fever, indigestion, wounds and burns. They believed burning the leaves helped to disinfectant the environment. They even used tobacco as an anesthetic during trepanning, a procedure in which holes were drilled in the head to cure illnesses.

Tobacco As Crop

The first settlers in America immediately saw that tobacco could be used as a cash crop to help support their new settlements. In 1620, the settlers of the first American colony began to cultivate tobacco as the first crop grown for profit in the New World. By the 1800s, both Europeans and Americans used small amounts of tobacco, either as a chew, in a pipe or in hand-rolled cigars and cigarettes.

The Cigarette Industry

Hand-rolled cigarettes became more common after 1865, when Washington Duke of North Carolina began to sell them to soldiers in the Civil War. James Bonsack invented a cigarette-making machine in 1881 that could make 120,000 cigarettes per day, and the cigarette industry took off. By 1944, the cigarette industry produced 300 billion units per year. During the post-war period and into the 1950s, cigarettes were advertised as part of the “good life” of the boom time economy.

The Fall of Big Tobacco

In 1964, the Surgeon General of the United States reviewed the scientific data concerning cigarette smoking and informed the public about the dangers involved in continued use of tobacco. Tobacco products were soon labeled to inform consumers of the risks. The tobacco industry fought back will a number of high-profile lawsuits, but in the end could not overrule the increasing wealth of scientific research about the hazards of smoking. Afterward, national campaigns to encourage Americans to stop smoking, as well as higher taxes on tobacco products, further eroded the profits of the tobacco industry.

After hundreds of years of popularity, science revealed the detrimental effects of tobacco use and the industry began to falter in the United States. The industry has looked to overseas markets, particularly in Southeast Asia, to increase its sales.