With all of the government focus on vaping in recent years, and the attempt by agencies like the FDA to “deem” electronic cigarettes to be tobacco – a clever scheme by which the agency can obtain regulatory power over non-tobacco products, it is easy to lose sight of tobacco’s unique nature and history. The history of smoking is an interesting tale, and can even offer us insight into where we as a society stand today in our relationship with nicotine and the harmful effects smoking can create.
The act of smoking is so ancient that no one can ever say for sure when tobacco was first used in this manner. What we do know is that the early peoples of the Americas utilized tobacco and a variety of other plants – many with hallucinogenic properties – in their shaman rituals for more than 7,000 years. Many scholars today believe that this practice of ritual smoking in the Western Hemisphere actually began in Ecuador and Peru.
Of course, other cultures had a similar history of smoking various substances. In China, India, ancient Greece, Babylon, and Israel alike, the burning of incense and inhalation of various smoke and gases is as old as the written word – if not older. Of course, those were ritual burnings of herbs, and the practice was not something that the average person did on a daily basis for recreational purposes.
The first instances of everyday use of tobacco for pleasure is also a mystery, but there are indications that the social aspects of smoking probably began around the 10th Century, during the Mayan classical era. Both the Mayan and Aztec civilizations employed tobacco smoking as a means for communicating with their spirit worlds. Conquistador reports suggest that many of the priests became extremely intoxicated from this smoking – which leads some experts to conclude that they either mixed their tobacco with various drugs, or had a much more potent variety of the plant than is currently available.
In any event, but the time the Europeans had arrived in the Americas, tobacco use was widespread in social gatherings. Later, when Columbus made his way to the New World, the natives he encountered offered him tobacco leaves as a gift – indicating that the plant held a place of esteem and value in their culture. European sailors eventually took the plant with them when they returned to their European homes, and began cultivating it on that continent as well.
In both ancient cultures and 16th and 17th-Century Europe, tobacco was believed to have curative powers. Monardes’ 1571 medical treatise actually went so far as to list three dozen different health ailments that tobacco could supposedly cure. Many Europeans believed that the plant could heal cancer, cure bad breath, and improving mental alertness. Of course, even then there were those who noticed that not all was bliss with the wonder plant. Sir Francis Bacon, for example, apparently noticed that those who tried smoking found it very difficult to quit the habit.
By 1612, Virginian John Rolfe had finished cultivating what is believed to be the very first commercial crop of tobacco. That led to a flurry of cultivating efforts that eventually saw tobacco become the premiere export crop in the Virginia colony. As plantations grew, the increased need for labor led to a rise in the demand for slave labor to work the land. Whereas previous farming efforts relied on indentured servitude to provide manpower, those servants’ contracts provided them with land when their period of indenture was complete. Since tobacco required extensive amounts of land for cultivation, that model of servitude could no longer work and unpaid slave labor became the norm.
As tobacco became more commercialized, its usage became almost universal. By 1760, the first tobacco company was formed in the United States: P. Lorillard. The sale of tobacco later served as one of the chief instruments for funding the American revolution. By the later 1800s, excise taxes from tobacco had grown to account for roughly one-third of the federal government’s revenue.
Even during the heights of its popularity, the harmful effects of tobacco usage were already being discussed at different levels of the scientific community. In 1836, for example, Samuel Green identified it as a toxic poison and insecticide. As cigarette companies emerged, so too did anti-smoking groups that sought to push through smoking bans in various states.
By the 1950s, evidence of links to cancer were becoming more difficult to ignore, despite the tobacco companies’ best efforts to deny any danger. As the 1960s began, however, even the U.S. government declared smoking a hazard – with the Surgeon General issuing a report in 1964 about the health dangers. By the 1980s and 1990s, numerous lawsuits had been filed, the tobacco companies were found to have lied about the dangers their products posed to human health, and heavy regulations were put in place to try to save lives.
Today, smoking is banned in most public places, its advertising is extremely restricted, and tobacco companies have tried to diversify into other markets as millions of their former customers have abandoned their products and taken up healthier alternatives like vaping – or simply quit using nicotine altogether. What a difference a few thousand years can make.