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The History of Tobacco and Its Growth Throughout the World


The year is 2018, there are over 7.5 billion people living on earth, WHO states 1.1 billion of those consume tobacco regularly. How can a single plant influence over 1/7 of our world? Though tobacco is used in cigarettes worldwide, the plant has much more history than just cigarettes. In fact, the cigarettes we know today have only been around for about 100 years. It’s common knowledge that tobacco is very addicting, but it wasn’t always well-known information. Tobacco has a rich history relating to many aspects of life, and through the many attempts of its destruction, it has plowed through them all.


The true origins of tobacco are unknown, there is speculation that it was first raised in the Peruvian Andes almost 10,000 years ago, but the first known historical evidence of domestication dates back to 1400 B.C.E. where remains of cultivated and wild tobacco were found in sites in the High Rolls Cave in New Mexico (Jordan Goodman xiii).

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With the technology of radiocarbon dating, it is known that domestication of tobacco spread to the indigenous peoples of the Eastern Woodlands by 180 C.E., which as a worst-case scenario would nearly be a 1600-year difference just to cross the current day the United States! These indigenous tribes used tobacco for medicinal purposes as well as ceremonial purposes for hundreds of years.

Pre-Columbian Era

The few centuries leading up to the Columbian Era isn’t documented very well. The first documented art and culture associated with tobacco is from a piece of pottery thought to be made around 600-1000 C.

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E (Figure 1)., it was produced by of one of the civilizations we studied earlier in the semester, the Maya. This bowl-like flask depicted an individual smoking tobacco leaves that were rolled together and tied tightly with string. There were traces of nicotine inside of the bowl, which led to the first physical evidence of the possible smoking of tobacco (Sarah Everts). Another early civilization that incorporated tobacco into their society was the Aztecs (Figure 2). The Aztecs cultivated tobacco in their chinampas. Chinampas were islands built up for crop culture (Jules Janick). These islands included the growing of food and non-food crops such as tobacco, used most notably in their capital Tenochtitlan. Much like the indigenous tribes of the Eastern Woodlands, the Aztecs used tobacco for many different aspects of their culture. This includes the selling of it in their markets, the use during religious ceremonies performed by shamans, as well as medicinal practices. Leading up to the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus, tobacco was used in religious ceremonies, public ceremonies, and medicinally throughout the tribes in North and South America.

Columbian Era

The 16th century was when reliable history regarding tobacco started being documented. In 1492, when Columbus sailed to the West Indies, he witnessed the people of the West Indies smoking small cigars “made from raw, twisted leaves of cured tobacco. Dried corn husks were used as wrappers” (Goodman 150). Columbus was gifted tobacco and seeds that he brought back with him. Tobacco was not grown by European settlers until the 1530s. These settlers first started cultivating in the Caribbean and shipped the product over to Europe by boat. When the tobacco plant was first attempted to be cultivated in Europe, around 1550, the cultivators were unsuccessful at growing the plant. It wasn’t until the late 1500s that the first successful growth of the tobacco plant occurred. It first came to France in 1556, then Portugal in 1558, then Spain in 1559, then England in 1565 (Davey). Taking 9 years to spread to neighboring countries sounds like a long time, but one must remember in the 1500s it took almost 3 months to cross the Atlantic Ocean, something that can now be done in less than a day ? logistics were much slower back then. Tobacco spread through the Middle East and Asia as well, reaching India, China, and Japan all by the year 1603.


When tobacco started to become a known product in Europe, it was only available to the elite. It was sparse due to the long time it took for transportation from the Americas and due to the few cultivation sites beginning to arise in Europe. Cultivation for a tobacco plant is about 1.5 to 2 months, from the planted seed until proper ripeness. At the turn of the 16th century, only a few reports had been published about tobacco, not much research had gone into the plant mostly because it was still so sparse. In 1603 “physicians, upset that tobacco [was] being used by people without a physician’s prescription; [complained] to King James I” (Gene Borio). King James I was the monarch of England at the time, and he agreed with the physicians’ concerns which led to the publication of A Counterblaste to Tobacco in 1603, to which he condemned the individuals who used tobacco. The tensions tobacco created were not isolated to England, in fact, just two years later, in 1606 the Spanish monarch, King Philip banned the growing of tobacco in Spain and all of its controlled territories, but this ban lasted a mere 6 years and development started again in 1612. Throughout the 1600s many similar occurrences like this happened, a ban would be put in place on the growing, the distribution, or the use of tobacco only to be rescinded years later. Why couldn’t the leaders and rulers keep these bans in place? Could it have been due to the fact that tobacco allowed economies to flourish? The addicting nature of tobacco? Medicinal Purposes? There may have been different reasons to uplift these bans in different parts of the world, but they all boiled down to this: the demur to tobacco became more and more feeble after the bans were initiated.

Mass Spread & Addiction

As time continued, tobacco use spread around the globe like wildfire. Tobacco had been used as currency, as medicine, in religion, in botony, in social life, and many more ways. Governments loved it because it allowed their economies to flourish: “During the 1680’s Jamestown was producing over 25,000,000 pounds of tobacco per year for sale in Europe” (Mike Davey). How could a single plant, unintroduced just over 100 years earlier, turn into one of the largest cash crops in the history of mankind? Most research points to addiction. The Oxford English Dictionary defines addiction as “The fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance or activity”. Addiction associated with tobacco is physiological, meaning it is both physically addictive and mentally addictive. The first documentation of the difficulty to stop tobacco use is from 1610 when Sir Francis Bacon wrote an excerpt stating that tobacco was hard to quit. Prior to developments, researchers didn’t understand tobacco to be a very addicting substance. It wasn’t until 1828, when two chemists from Heidelberg University, Ludwig Reimann and Wilhelm Heinrich, figured out how to isolate the nicotine in tobacco. Their conclusions in their report stated that nicotine was a “dangerous poison”. Yet even though these reports were published there was no true public concern because of the inability to spread the word?the internet didn’t exist, in fact, communication technology was so primitive the only way to distribute knowledge was from word of mouth or handwritten documents. In the 1800s tobacco was thought of as more of a business model than a danger to society.

Cigarettes & Commercial Business

The tobacco industry had been booming for 200 years throughout the entire world. Just when business tycoons thought the industry could not get any larger an invention would prove them all wrong: the cigarette. Before the mid-19th century people had smoked tobacco out of cigarette-like apparatuses, but most of which were time-consuming to make or did not work as well as the cigarette. In 1845 the French tobacco monopoly revolutionized the idea of rolled tobacco and coined it the cigarette (Goodman). The French spread the cigarette around Europe, noting its popularity among soldiers fighting in the Crimean War, it is very important to know this as the same phenomenon happened in the U.S. Civil War and many other wars. Nearing the 20th century, the cigarette became very well known and could be produced by cigarette-making machines, courtesy of the Second Industrial Revolution. Cigarettes can be compared to when tobacco was originally introduced to Europe in the 15th century, with its quick spread and mass craving, as well as many anti-cigarette movements, much like the bans against tobacco instructed by leaders. In 1900 “4.4 billion cigarettes [were] sold this year. The anti-cigarette movement [had] destroyed many smaller companies. In 1901 3.5 billion cigarettes and 6 billion cigars [were] sold. Four in five American men [smoked] at least one cigar a day” (Borio). These statistics may be shocking, especially given that the estimated world population in 1900 was 1.6 billion, but the amount of money poured into advertising was quite astonishing. One company alone, Buck Duke (later known as American Tobacco), spent over $800,000 in advertising (Borio). This may not sound like a lot, but in today’s value of the dollar it would be about $24,000,000, and this was still before the television was invented. In 1907 “the U.S. Justice Department [filed] anti-trust charges against American Tobacco”(Goodman). The Justice Department had concerns of a monopoly on the tobacco industry. This led to the U.S. Supreme Court dissolving the American Tobacco Company, splitting its assets to other large tobacco companies in 1911. The tobacco industry kept getting larger and larger, continuing through The Great Depression. During World War 2 cigarettes were shipped to soldiers for free, and like in the Crimean War, many soldiers smoked cigarettes. Since cigarettes are addicting, after the war the soldiers came back to the United States and started purchasing them.


Before the 1900s, lung cancer was rare; in fact, lung tumors only made up 1% of all cancers recorded. (Hanspeter Witschi). Though it’s common knowledge today that smoking causes lung cancer, technology and information were minimal back then, so it was quite difficult to be sure that smoking caused cancer, especially when it was being romanticized by the large tobacco companies. Studies and a copious amount of research started going into tobacco. Though reports were published about a correlation between smoking and lung cancer, there were no definite cases that could have been concluded as causation due to the possibility of lurking variables. In the 1950s, the first evidence of causation was found by Dr. Ernst L. Wynder. He put cigarette tar on mice and saw that it created tumors (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). This led to an influx of research about cancer and tobacco.

The spread of Knowledge on Harmful Factors of Tobacco

It is important to know the study and knowledge of tobacco have not always been as comprehensive as it is today. Prior to the 1950s, the effects of tobacco were thought of as minimal by the average American. However, in 1964, things changed drastically. When the United States’ Surgeon General, Luther Terry, researched the effects of tobacco, he acted. Following his research and how tobacco is detrimental to human livelihood, Terry published a report “Smoking and Health” in an attempt to educate the citizens of the United States and around the globe on how both smoking tobacco and consumption of tobacco has severe consequences to human health. Six years before the report was published, in 1958 a Gallup survey found that a mere 44% of Americans thought smoking tobacco-caused cancer, but 10 years later in 1968 the same poll found 78% of Americans thought smoking tobacco-caused cancer, nearly double the original! (U.S. National Library of Medicine). Though the government was slow to respond at first, it has allocated a large amount of time and resources to a comprehensive approach to tobacco control. The first course of action by Congress was in 1965 when all cigarette packages distributed in the United States had to have a health warning, but most of which were very small, so this did not help very much. Four years later, in 1969, Congress passed a law that banned cigarette advertising on television and radio. The big tobacco companies started to create propaganda (Figure 3) continuing to claim that cigarettes were harmless, and in 2006 the U.S. Judicial System found that the companies violated civil racketeering laws and were forced to educate the American people on how smoking causes cancer and other health problems.


Ultimately, there are many issues regarding tobacco that are still prevalent to this day, in fact, if one is watching their television the channel is likely to host an advertisement broadcasting how tobacco seriously negatively affects one’s health. The demand for tobacco has significantly decreased in recent history leading to a significant downsizing in the tobacco industry, though it is quite possible tobacco will exist until the end of mankind due to its addicting nature.

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The History of Tobacco and Its Growth Throughout the World. (2019, Dec 18). Retrieved from

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