Tobacco through history


Small amounts of nicotine have been found in human remains and pipes in the Near East and Africa, but there is no clear evidence that tobacco was used frequently in the Ancient World. Except from America.

In America the natives used it for all different kind of medical purposes. Burning a torch containing tobacco seemingly helped disinfect and ward of diseases and the plant was used for treating sores, abscesses, fistulas and inveterate polyps. Snuffing the plant through the natives pipe caused loss of consciousness and historians speculate whether this was used as an anesthetic for operations.

The natives even used it mixed with lime or chalk as a whitening for the teeth, which practice is still used today in India, where tobacco toothpaste is marketed commercially (Charlton, 2004).jan07_side12-16

In Mexico the natives breathed the odor from fresh green leaves of the plant, which relieved persistent headaches. For colds and catarrh they rubbed green leaves of the plant inside the mouth and the leafs were also used to heal wounds and burns.


Columbus discovers tobacco

When Columbus first came to America back in 1492 he and his crew was giving multiple gifts from the locals, where one of them was ‘…certain dried leaves which gave off a distinct fragrance’. These leaves were thrown out and it wasn’t until a couple of weeks later that the Europeans discovered the usage of them.

In 1498 Columbus visits Trinidad and Tobago, which he named after the native pipe used for smoking. The native Americans actually called the pipe iself for tabaco or tavaco and the dried leaves for petum, betum, cogioba, cohobba, quauhyetl, picietl or yietl. The name tobacco was applied to the plant by mistake (Charlton, 2004).

The Europeans brought home this new mysterious plant mainly for it’s medical purposes, but some of the sailors had begun to smoke the plant as well. Along the road of their sea routes the Portuguese developed small farms, where the tobacco could grow, to meet their own personal need and could be given as barter or gifts (

For the settlers in America tobacco became the first crop grown for money (Marjorie, 1995). Other main cash crops were corn, cotton, wheat, sugar and soya beans.


Jean Nicot

ek_nicot_6Around 1560 Jean Nicot, a French Ambassador to Lisbon, was presented with a herb by the keeper of a prison he was visiting. Nicot planted it in his garden, where it multiplied and he soon discovered the medical miracles of the tobacco plant. He later sent the herb to King Francis II, the Queen Mother and many of the Lords of the Court. Through Nicots generosity with tobacco it soon became known as the ambassador’s herb or nicotiane. This is the origin of the name we know today (Charlton,2004).


Early criticism

Even though the tobacco plant became increasingly popular in the Old World as well as in the New World, some were very critical of the way the plant was used as some sort of miracle cure for every medical problem. More and more doctors spoke up about their mistrust of the herb, but that did not hold the plant back from entering the pharmaceutical world.

In 1828 scientist isolated the nicotine from tobacco leaves and discovered a dangerous alkaloid in the help, which only made the medical world even more distrustful for its usage as general treatment. More accurate measurements were installed, but the plant was still a common herb.

In 1880 the first cigarette rolling machine was introduced (Edwards,2015), which helped the speed up production. Up until then tobacco had been primarily consumed through chewing, pipes and cigars, 800px-Bonsack_machine.0.pngsince cigarette companies could only roll up about four and five cigarettes a minute.






The 20th century

The popularization of the cigarette habit caused a global lung cancer epidemic (Proctor, 2011).

As early as 1898 tobacco was suspected as a cause of lung tumors by a medical student called Hermann Rothmann, who proposed that tobacco dust (not smoke) might be causing the elevated incidences of lung tumors among German tobacco workers. In 1912 Isaac Adler corrected Rottmann claiming that smoking might was to blame for the sudden explosion of lung diseases. Until then lung cancer had been such a rare diseases that medical professors, when confronted with a case, often told their student that they might not see another case again. In 1920 however it had become a rather common disease.

Different culprits such as smoking, asphalt from newly tarred roads, industrial air pollution and latent effects from exposure of poison gas in the First World War were blamed. During the Second World war soldiers were handed out free cigarettes every day, while their wives and sisters at home were mass targeted by the cigarette companies (Marjorie, 1995).

Cigarettes were recognized as the main cause of the epidemic of lung diseases in the 1940s and 1950s with a confluence of different studies from epidemiology, animal experiments, cellular pathology and chemical analytics. The cigarette manufactures rejected this evidence and through successful propaganda they were able to keep the consumers buying more cigarettes. As late as 1960 only 1/3 of all US doctors believed the evidence of the health risks of cigarettes (Proctor, 2011).

In 1964 however, the Surgeon General of the US (the chief doctor of the country) wrote a report about the dangers of cigarette smoking and in 1965 the Congress of the US passed the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act. This act forced the cigarette companies to have a warning label on each packet, as we see it today.

In the 1980’s the cigarette companies launched new643c0644a037adaf2b9bdcb9ecacb775 and improved cigarettes with better filters and lower amounts of tar in order for them to keep their costumers buying their products. Federal, state, local governments and private companies began to restrict
cigarette smoking in public places and tobacco companies could no longer advertise cigarettes on television or radio due to a law passed by the Congress in 1971. Since the 1990 airlines have banned smoking on airplane flight in the USA and state taxes on cigarettes have increased. In addition Tobacco in medical practice has long since been removed (Marjorie, 1995).


Tobacco in the future

Today the old-fashioned cigarette has a new competition: the e-cigarette.

So far we can only speculate what the long-term health risks to these e-cigarettes will be, but a large part of the medical world remains skeptical about them.  The US Surgeon General states the use of e-cigarettes among youth is now a public health concern and encourage especially policymakers to discourage the use of such (Surgeon General Report, 2016).

One of the main reasons that youths use these e-cigarettes seems to be the flavor. The main component of e-cigarettes is the e-liquid contained in cartridges. To create the e-hgjklliquid nicotine is extracted from tobacco and mixed with a base consisted of usually glycol. The e-liquid may also contain flavorings, coloring and other chemicals. It is these other chemicals that doctors included the Surgeon General in the US believe can be harmful for the users of e-cigarettes.


Currently we don’t know exactly what these ‘other chemicals’ consist of, since it tends to vary according to brand. However, in a lab test conducted in 2009 by the FDA they found detectable levels of toxic cancer-causing chemicals. Another study have found that the levels of toxins varied considerably between brands and a 2014 study found formaldehylde, which is another carcinogen potential to cause cancer (American Lung Association, 2016).

Diacetyl is a buttery flavoured chemical often added to food products like popcorn, caramel and dairy products and was also found in some e-cigarettes with flavors. Diacetyl can cause a serious and uncurable lung diesease commonly known as ‘popcorn lung’, which is not as innocent as it sounds. Diacetyl leaves scares on the air sacks in the lungs and the symptoms involve shortness of breath and coughing much compared to the well known disease COPD.


E-cigarettes will perhaps also be banned one day in the future like public smoking of regular cigarettes are today. The question is if it will take us just as long as it did with the old cigarettes. And will there simply be a new tobacco-based product on the market ready to replace the old?




I suggest:

Schiffmann, G., ‘Popcorn Lung’ Symptoms and Causes, seen 6. Feb. 2017

1950’s Commercials for Lucky Strike cigarettes


  • Thursday: Cigarettes – history of
    • Banning of cigarettes in television
    • Secondhand smoke
    • When did we discover the major health risks with cigarettes/tobacco
    • E-cigarettes

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