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Tobacco, formally known by the Latin binomial, Nicotiana tabacum, belongs to the nightshade (Solanaceae) family of New World plants. The best current guess by anthropologists is that tobacco was used in Mexico as early as 1400 BC, for its alleged health benefits, as well as its social and ceremonial value, the latter for sealing trade agreements or peace treaties. It became a popular trade item from the 1500s onwards with Europeans, whose tobacco use was purely recreational in nature.

Tobacco soon became a major New World product with millions of pounds produced annually, most of which was shipped to England. Supply and demand for tobacco* fluctuated wildly in pre-Revolutionary America, with the price bottoming at one-quarter of a penny per pound in 1705. Prices stabilized and grew steadily up to the 1750s, when the British economy began to teeter and had a knock-on effect on the colonists who traded primarily on credit. By the late 1760s, most Americans were heavily in debt to their British creditors. The 1772 collapse of the English banks finished them off and, per historian TH Breen, may have been as central a trigger to the American Revolution as Parliament’s regulatory hanky-panky.

*The sweet mild tobacco grown in Virginia was widely preferred in Europe and England. The subsequent tobacco epidemic is often viewed as “payback” by Native Americans. Adolf Hitler viewed smoking as decadent and the wrath of the Red Man against the White Man, vengeance for having been given hard liquor. 

Tobacco was chewed, snuffed and of course smoked (in pipes and hand-rolled cigarettes) into the late 1800s. The US per capita consumption of tobacco in the 19th century was about 40 cigarettes per year. In 1865, one Washington Duke of Raleigh, North Carolina began to sell hand-rolled cigarettes to soldiers at the end of the Civil War. In 1881, James Bonsack invented a machine that produces 120,000 cigarettes per day. He partnered with Duke’s son, Buck and not long afterward, they were producing 1 billion smokes per year. Dad Duke and puke Duke together started America’s first tobacco company and, in a fit of creativity, called it the American Tobacco Company (ATC). 

tobacco doctor smoking image from New Medical Terms

Doctor extolling health benefits of tobacco

The ATC was the only game in town until 1902 when Philip Morris muscled in with its Marlboro and other brands. Cigarettes were primarily hawked to and consumed by men until the World Wars. With the men gone and females doing the heavy lifting in the factories, Big Tobacco turned to a previously untapped market: women. At the end of the World War 2, per capita cigarette consumption in the US continued to grow, from 54/year in 1900 to an astounding 4000+/year in the early 1960s. 

The age of innocence, in which the public was kept in the dark about the perils of cigarette smoking, began to unravel with Richard Doll’s reports in the BMJ in the early 1950s, which linked cigarettes to emphysema and lung cancer. The high water mark for cigarette consumption in the USA was the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health, after which time Big Tobacco has had to repeatedly re-trench on:

• Public advertising of tobacco products–now banned

• Use of influential mascots, e.g., Joe Camel and Marlboro Man–now banned

• Smoking in public places–now banned

• Warning labels on tobacco products

The tide is slowly turning, and cigarette consumption is drifting downward. In 1964, 43% of American adults were smokers; by 2016 , less than 19% were. Similar declines in tobacco consumption have been seen in other economically developed regions, thanks in part to Hollywood, which has helped make smoking uncool for impressionable youngsters. 

Unfortunately, public health measures intended to reduce cigarette smoking have not been universally effective. Montenegro has the dubious honour of topping the WHO’s 2014 list of per capita consumption of cigarettes (4124)…which is similar to Americans’ per capita cigarette consumption in 1964. The USA has dropped to 57th place (of 182 countries), with its per capita consumption of 1083 cigarettes. 

tobacco use 21st Century image from New Medical Terms

Tobacco use in the 21st century

The next big thing in this area of what the Germans call genuss Gifte (pleasurable poisons) is the growing impact of e-cigarettes. Whilst the jury on vaping—as the new practice is called—is still out, early reports describe bleeding, gum disease, impaired healing of oral ulcers, and vaper’s cough, which is pathogenetically similar to smoker’s cough and attributed to micro diameter particulate matter and toxic metals in some vaping liquids. We are all watching this evolving development with considerable interest.