Tobacco is defined as the prepared leaves of a tobacco plant, which is native to Central America. Today, it is most commonly associated with cigarettes; however tobacco is also the ingredient in a number of other products such as cigars. In addition to being smoked it is also chewed or even sniffed when in powdered form. It is considered a legal drug, although it is often listed as one of the top ten most dangerous drugs. Since it was first discovered it has gone through various degrees of popularity and acceptance. Despite the presence of dangerous and addictive chemicals such as nicotine, pesticides, and tar, it continues to be a common habit.
The tobacco plant can be traced to Central America as far back as 6000 B.C. At that time it was a free-growing plant that was used by the indigenous people of the area. As it spread the natives began to discover uses for it in their rituals and religious ceremonies. It was often left behind as an offering to various spirits. Tobacco was also used for medicinal purposes and to settle disputes and create peace between tribes. Although tobacco can be traced back to 6000 B.C., it wasn't until the 1400s that it was officially “discovered” by people other than the Native Americans. When Christopher Columbus's travels landed him in Central America he was given numerous gifts by the people there, including dried tobacco leaves. He did not use them at the time; however some of his crew took an interest upon seeing natives smoking it. These sailors took tobacco home to England where it eventually became popular.
In the early 1600s John Rolfe began to cultivate tobacco in Virginia. As a result of his efforts, Virginia was producing 20,000 lbs. of tobacco annually by 1617 and double that much in the following year. During this period the demand for tobacco was so high that its value made it a type of currency. Shipments and other products were purchased using not money, but tobacco. As a result, tobacco crops became a form of money crop. Its use as a money crop continued for the next 200 years and it even helped fund the American Revolution War.
As smoking became increasingly popular in the U.S., so did cigarettes. They were first commercially made and sold in 1865 following the Civil War. The process of making them was slow, however. In 1881 a cigarette-making machine was invented that could produce as many as 120,000 cigarettes daily. This was a major turning point for cigarette sales and increased the number sold and the number of people who used them. In 1890 J.B. Duke founded the American Tobacco Company. It was the largest and most powerful company in the world that came from the merging of five tobacco manufacturers, including Goodwin & Company and Allen and Ginter. The company was the dominating force in tobacco sales and products for 20 years; it supplied products to Asia and Europe as well as the U.S. By 1907 it violated the Sherman Antitrust Act and the Department of Justice filed a suit against it. The case, which was known as The United States v. American Tobacco Co., ended with the Supreme Court ordering the company to dissolve. As a result the company broke into smaller companies.
Originally, cigarette companies primarily focused their marketing on men. During World War I and then World War II, the marketing focus shifted to include women as well. It was often depicted as glamorous and a symbol of independence and sophistication. Although women were included in the marketing campaign, men were still a focus for tobacco companies, and free cigarettes were given to soldiers as a part of their rations, during the Wars. By 1944, 75 percent of all cigarettes were used by service men. Although cigarette sales had reached record highs in the U.S. between the early 30s and late 70s, a change came in 1964 that would alter how people felt about cigarettes. During that year the U.S. Surgeon General released a report that stated smoking was a cause of lung cancer among men. This resulted in closer scrutiny of cigarettes and cigarette smoke. It also resulted in cigarette companies attempting to make lower tar cigarettes. Over time an increasing number of laws restricting the use of cigarettes and instructions for companies to include warning labels have gone into effect. People in many cities were restricted from smoking indoors or in public establishments. Taxes on cigarettes increased. As a result companies have begun to turn their marketing efforts to other countries.
Although tobacco and cigarette sales in the U.S. have decreased, it is still one of the most commonly used and acceptable drugs. The health risks that are associated with tobacco and cigarettes also makes it one of the most dangerous drugs in the world. In the United States, smoking results in roughly 443,000 deaths a year. People who use cigarettes and other tobacco products are at a high risk of developing lung cancer, cancer of the voice box, throat, stomach, mouth, and other areas. Other health problems are associated with the habit, many of them potentially deadly. These conditions include cardiovascular disease and respiratory disease. It is also a cause of infertility and birth defects.
Learn more about tobacco crops and cigarettes by reading the information on the following links.
- Medicinal Uses of Tobacco in History
- The History, Economics & Hazards of Tobacco – History of Tobacco
- January 1890 – The Creation of the American Tobacco Company
- The History of Tobacco and Its Growth Throughout the World
- Center for Substance Abuse Research
- Tobacco in Business and Industry-Tobacco: A Growth Industry
- The Tobacco Epidemic: A Historical Overview (PDF)
- History of Tobacco: In the Beginning
- CNN: A Brief History of Tobacco
- The Tobacco Timeline
- The American Cancer Society – Cigarette Smoking
- The History of Cigarettes
- The Dangers of Secondhand Cigarette Smoke
- Say No to Cigarettes With Hypnosis