Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today

Larry Holzwarth - April 29, 2022

Ancient Greeks and Romans smoked, though the plant nicotiana tabacum – tobacco – was unknown to them. Instead, they smoked leaves and seeds of other plants and herbs, for medicinal as well as recreational purposes. By the end of the Roman Empire in the west, lavender was a popular plant used for teas and smoked. The Greeks and Romans knew nothing of the Mesoamerican peoples across the Atlantic Ocean, where as long as 12,000 years ago, according to archaeologists, the plant we know today as tobacco was smoked. That discovery, first reported in 2021, extended the record of humanity’s use of tobacco by over 6,000 years. It means that early humans were smoking tobacco leaves at the same time woolly Mammoths roamed the earth.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
Recent archeological research indicates prehistoric humans smoked tobacco while Wooly Mammoths still walked the earth. Wikimedia

In the Americas, the ancient people used tobacco as medicine, in religious ceremonies, and in meetings, as part of a ritual. There is also ample evidence it was used purely for the enjoyment of the consumer. It became an important part of trade between various tribes, across today’s South America, Central America, and North America. When Columbus visited and explored today’s Cuba in 1492, his men reported the natives smoking loosely wrapped leaves, “…and having lighted one part of it, by the other they suck, absorb, or receive that smoke inside with the breath…” appearing intoxicated by the effects. According to Columbus’s reports, the natives called their smokes “tabacos”. Spanish colonizers shipped tobacco to Spain, where it was first cultivated in Europe. From that humble beginning, it became a product that helped shape the modern world. Here’s how.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
Christopher Columbus observed natives smoking tobacco in Cuba and brought back seeds and leaves to Spain. Wikimedia

1. The early explorers of America believed tobacco to have medicinal properties

After the discovery of the New World, the European nations at the forefront of exploration, Spain, Portugal, and France, moved quickly to exploit their finds. Spanish and Portuguese colonies attempted to obtain trade with the natives. Trade in tobacco grew with astonishing speed. When Diego Columbus, brother of Christopher, died in 1526, just 34 years after the Spanish landings in the New World, his last will and testament were bequeathed to a tobacco merchant in Lisbon. Trade of tobacco with the Spanish was natural for the natives, since the plant was already used as a form of currency among the different clans and tribes. There were also several different types of tobacco, since cultivation of the plant had not yet been undertaken. Lisbon’s merchants proved instrumental in establishing tobacco’s popularity in Europe.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
JEAN NICOT French diplomat and scholar who introduced tobacco from Portugal into France. Wikimedia.

In approximately 1559, Jean Nicot, then ambassador to Portugal from the court of France’s King Francis II, and more importantly to the true power behind the throne, Catherine de Medici, sent dried tobacco leaves to Paris. He included the procedure to grind the leaves into a powder, and how to use it as snuff. He also sent seeds. King Francis II suffered from severe headaches, and Nicot suggested snuff was used to cure headaches among Lisbon society. Francis II died in 1560, of an unknown affliction. However, he had reported snuff relieved his headaches, and his mother Catherine de Medici became an aficionado of the strange leaf. For his services introducing tobacco to France, Jean Nicot was awarded a title and lands. A century later the naturalist Carl Linnaeus named the genus of cultivars Nicotiana in his honor, the source of the word nicotine in modern parlance.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
A fanciful depiction of Jean Nicot offering tobacco leaves to Catherine de Medici. Library of Congress

2. The French court used powdered tobacco as a preventive medicine

Jean Nicot, while in Portugal, developed several uses of dried and powdered tobacco leaves. He mixed it with liquids, including wines and vinegars, to make poultices to apply to various complaints, including boils. Nicot believed inhaling the powder nasally induced sneezing, which rid the body of various nostrums. He also supported the practice of placing a pinch of the powder inside the mouth, held between the cheek and gum. Nicot developed the latter practice after learning from Portuguese sailors of the natives’ habit of chewing the dried leaves of the plant. Nicot introduced the new medical preparation to the island of Malta. From there it quickly found favor with the Islamic world around the western Mediterranean. By 1570, the French, Spanish, and Portuguese referred to powered tobacco as “Herbe de la Reine” (the Queen’s herb) and it was cultivated in all three countries.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
Tobacco in France, 1500s. US History.

Yet few endorsed smoking the leaves at first. Then, in 1571, a Spanish physician published a treatise describing the plants then coming to Europe from the New World. He claimed consuming tobacco by smoking the leaves could cure 36 different known diseases. By then consumption of tobacco across Europe was wildly popular. It was under cultivation across the continent, frequently in the medicinal gardens planted by monks in the monasteries. Tobacco, unknown to Europeans only eight decades earlier, had become a cash crop in Europe. It was offered as payment for debts, and traded for other necessary commodities, such as grain. In England, smoking became the preferred means of consuming tobacco among the working people. The nobility and gentry continued to content themselves with taking powdered tobacco, which the British called snuff.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
An elaborate enameled snuff box of unknown vintage. Cleveland Museum of Art

3. Powdered tobacco introduced new social rituals and a new art form

Throughout the 17th century, the use of snuff became an approved social ritual. Even the ladies, taking their cue from the by then dead Catherine de Medici, commonly used snuff. The pretense of its medicinal value waned during the decades, replaced by its indication of social standing. It was held in high esteem by the nobility, and thus gained favor from those wishing to emulate the lords and ladies of the ruling classes. The practice led to the creation of a new fashion accessory for well-turned-out ladies and gentlemen. It was called the snuff box. By the mid-17th century snuff boxes appeared in both a large size, offered a table for communal use, and in small, personal boxes which the snuff user carried on the person. They came in varied shapes, made of diverse materials. The best silver boxes came from Sheffield.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
Catherine de Medici. Wikipedia.

Many were ornate, covered with complex etchings and inlays. French snuffboxes, called tabatieres, often were encrusted with gems. Many land owners had their crests or coats of arms carved into the lid of their snuffboxes. The boxes were painstakingly crafted by hand, usually by jewelers or their apprentices, and the best boxes were so designated because they kept their contents sealed from the air. Exposure to air caused the snuff to absorb moisture, rendering it distasteful to the user. Snuff was taken from the pox in a pinch, sniffed, and followed with a large, equally flamboyant handkerchief. The offering and taking of snuff became a social ritual, akin to offering a toast. It remained so well into the early 20th century. Today, many antique snuff boxes are highly desired collectibles, while many others are in museums around the world.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
The British privateer, naval officer, explorer, and according to the Spanish sometime pirate, John Hawkins. Wikimedia

4. Smoking tobacco became the habit of the common man

While their alleged betters developed the rituals of taking snuff and acquired the accouterments the habit required, smoking tobacco leaves became the practice of the working class. Smoking tobacco in Britain began with the return of John Hawkins from Spanish Florida in 1565. His men had observed the natives smoking tobacco leaves through “… a cane, and an earthen cup at the end” and apparently entering into a peaceful calm state having done so. Hawkins’ men, in the longstanding tradition of seamen emulating a good time wherever one is encountered, availed themselves of the practice. Though it was they who brought smoking to Britain, the practice was not widely accepted. For one thing, most of the tobacco then available in Britain was in powdered form, not suitable for smoking.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
Sir Walter Raleigh. Wikimedia.

Sir Walter Raleigh brought leaf tobacco to Britain, from the Roanoke Colony in what was then called “Virginie”. In 1595 an English poet named Anthony Chute published a treatise titled Tabaco. He recommended applying whole tobacco leaves to the skin to relieve many complaints and advocated smoking it to alleviate several health conditions. With everlasting irony, he suggested smoking tobacco relieved health problems relating to the chest and lungs. To Chute, though he cited no evidence, smoking tobacco was not only harmless, but beneficial to the overall health of the smoker. His pronouncement came at the same time another relatively new consumer product became popular in Britain, coffee. Coffee houses became places of resort where men gathered to smoke a pipe, drink a dish of coffee, and solve the problems of the world. One such establishment, Lloyd’s Coffee House, became today’s Lloyd’s of London.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
British courtier, soldier, explorer, colonizer, and tobacco enthusiast Sir Walter Raleigh. Wikimedia

5. The Jamestown Colony and the cultivation of tobacco

In May 1607, colonists from Britain landed in Virginia and established themselves at James Fort, later James Towne, along the James River. They could not have picked a worse time. The region was in the middle of a three-year drought. The natives, though not openly hostile at first, were wary of the new arrivals. It was too late in the year to plant crops, and survival of the few they did plant was rare. Over 80% of the first group of settlers died in the ensuing period, known as the Starving Time. Recent excavations at the site indicated the settlers may have resorted to cannibalism. Relief expeditions did little to alleviate the suffering and the colonists abandoned the settlement in 1610. They returned to the settlement after encountering another relief expedition in the James River.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
Cultivation of tobacco in Jamestown. Wikipedia.

One of the enduring myths of the Jamestown settlement is the colonists discovered native tobacco and transformed it into a cash crop, saving the colony. In 1610, John Rolfe arrived at the colony, bringing with him tobacco seeds from plants cultivated by shipwreck survivors he encountered in Bermuda. Rolfe was aware of the soaring popularity of tobacco in England. He reasoned that he could harvest tobacco in Virginia and generate a cash crop for the investors in the colony, enriching himself in the process. The Spanish tobacco seeds Rolfe brought from Bermuda produced a sweeter leaf than those of the native Virginia strains. Rolfe harvested his first crop in 1614, having established Varina Farms, the first of the great Virginia tobacco plantations, two years earlier. By 1618 Rolfe was a wealthy man, and Virginia tobacco was the preferred leaf among British consumers.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
John Rolfe became a successful planter after bringing Spanish tobacco seeds to Virginia from Bermuda. Wikimedia

6. Rolfe’s success led to a boom for the Virginia Colony

In 1622, the year John Rolfe died (his wife, Pocahontas, whom he called Rebecca, had died in 1617) all of British North America was called Virginia by most Englishmen. The tiny English colony was subject to the predations of the Spanish, French, Dutch, and the natives, as well as the pirates which roamed the seas. The fact the colony survived, and succeeded, can be attributed to one product. That product was Rolfe’s tobacco, which merged Spanish seeds and Virginia’s soil and climate. Settlers swarmed the Virginia lands along its tidal rivers, the James, York, Rappahannock, and Potomac. Plantations stretched from the riverbanks inland, planted in the gold of the Virginia Colony, tobacco. As the fields expanded, so did the need for more hands to plant the crops, nurse them, harvest them, and cure and ship the leaf. Until 1619 that labor came primarily from indentured servants.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
circa 1835: Slaves aboard a slave ship being shackled before being put on the hold. Illustration by Swain

The Portuguese initiated African slavery in the New World, purchasing enslaved people in Africa and transporting them to their sugar colonies in Brazil. The French soon followed suit, as did the British, resorting to African slave labor for their colonies on the Caribbean Islands. In 1619 the first slave ship arrived at Jamestown, an event noted by Rolfe in his diary. Whether Rolfe purchased any of the enslaved Africans is uncertain, he recorded that “20 and odd Negroes” had been purchased in exchange for what he called “victuals”. Virginia’s booming tobacco industry led the colony into the transatlantic slave trade, an eventual Civil War, and over four centuries of racial inequality in what became the United States. That same year more than 40,000 pounds of Virginia leaf were shipped to England. Within twelve years the tobacco shipped from the Virginia plantations exceeded 1.5 million pounds.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
James VI and I, King of Scotland and England, loathed smoking and heavily taxed tobacco in Britain. Wikimedia

7. The British government warned of the dangers of tobacco use in 1604

King James VI and I, of Scotland, England and Ireland, loathed the use of tobacco by his subjects. It was he for whom the colony of Jamestown was named, as well as the James River on which it was located. Nonetheless, King James was not appreciative of the product of the new colony. In 1604, 360 years before the US Surgeon General issued his first report on the harmful aspects of smoking, James made his position on smoking clear in pamphlet he titled, A Counterblaste to Tobacco. James unfairly blamed the natives in America for exposing Europeans to tobacco use. He condemned the exposure by smokers to others, who were forced to inhale what later became known as second-hand smoke. He imposed strict taxes on tobacco, which raised the price to consumers.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
Portrait of James I of Scotland; author unknown (c. late 16th century). Wikimedia Commons.

In justification of his actions James wrote smoking was, “A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse.” Two decades later he had a change of heart. He created a Royal monopoly on tobacco from Virginia and Bermuda, helping the colonies to increase their profitability. In 1624 over 7,000 shops, markets, and taverns sold tobacco in London alone, the vast majority of it from the plantations in Virginia. For merchants and tavernkeepers to sell tobacco to patrons, a license which cost fifteen pounds annually was required. The fifteen pounds went directly into the Royal treasury, meaning the author of A Counterblaste to Tobacco made considerable profit from the sale of the hated product.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
A Virginia tobacco warehouse in the 1920s, largely unchanged from a century earlier. Virginia Commonwealth University

8. Virginia tobacco planters were among the first vendors to brand their products

As the tobacco plantations in Virginia’s Tidewater region expanded, variations in the quality of the leaf they produced emerged. For some planters, their tobacco, cured and packed in hogsheads, was sent to huge warehouses which lined the waterfronts in Richmond, Alexandria, Georgetown, and Fredericksburg. Other large planters had direct access to ships using docks and wharves built on their plantation’s waterfront. Variations in the curing process, which affected the quality of the leaf, gave some planters reputations for high-quality product, while others ranked beneath them on the competitive totem pole. Some planters, including Augustus Washington, father of George, began the practice of marking their hogsheads with brands, burned into the staves of the barrel. It was one of the first instances of product branding in history.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
Flower of tobacco plant. Encyclopedia Virginia.

In 1730 the Virginia House of Burgesses enacted the Tobacco Inspection Act. The act designated 40 locations where tobacco was inspected by government-employed agents. Tobacco which passed was then branded by the inspector. Tobacco which did not was destroyed. No other American produce of the land was subject to government inspection at the time. Wheat, rye, barley, corn, pork, lamb, and other items for human consumption went to market without government inspection for quality or safety. The inspection brand ensured purchasers received a product which met or exceeded the high-quality standards established by the Virginia legislature. Tobacco was thus one of the first products to be regulated by government intervention in America. Smaller planters looked for ways to evade inspection, and smuggling expanded along the Virginia coastline.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
Glasgow, on the Clyde in Scotland, was a leading tobacco port in the 18th and 19th century. Wikimedia

9. The Tobacco Lords created a near-monopoly on American tobacco

In 1710 the French Crown granted the Scottish city of Glasgow sole rights to import tobacco to French territories, and France itself. Glasgow’s advantages of having a sheltered, deepwater port on the west coast of the British Isles gave it ready access to tobacco ships driven by the prevailing westerly winds from the British colonies in America. Glaswegian merchants entered an economic expansion which lasted for most of the 18th century, importing tobacco and other products from America. The merchants also entered the transatlantic slave trade and vast fortunes were acquired by several Glaswegians. The most successful became known as the Tobacco Lords. It was they who determined the prices paid for the American planters’ crops, and in what in a later day would be called collusion they controlled the economics of the tobacco trade.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
Tobacco Lords. Alchetron.

The most successful American planters acquired vast fortunes in terms of land and chattel slaves, but hard money in the colonies was scarce. Even the most successful of the planters, with names such as Washington, Lee, Fairfax, Custis, Randolph, Mason, Jefferson, and others all had to borrow money from the merchants in Scotland and England to purchase the items needed to plant their crops and furnish their estates. In return, they sent their crops to the merchants for sale on consignment. With the merchants controlling the ultimate price they paid the planters, many of the latter found themselves in debt, year after year. By the 1750s, with little hard currency, Virginia and North Carolina planters used their tobacco to settle local debts, for the purchase of land or slaves for example. Virginia planters began to petition Parliament for redress with little success.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
George Washington, like nearly all of America’s tobacco planters, was heavily in debt to British merchants and lenders before the Revolutionary War. Wikimedia

10. Tobacco had a significant impact on the American Revolution

In Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, and Delaware the majority of tobacco planters were heavily indebted to their merchants and lenders in Britain, where the Tobacco Lords in Glasgow manipulated prices to their own benefit. By the time of the Seven Years’ War, known in America as the French and Indian War, the Tobacco Lords in Glasgow handled more of the tobacco trade from America than all other British ports combined. Virginia and Maryland planters, many of whose names are among the Founding Fathers, were in debt to the tune of the equivalent of $200 million in today’s money. Anger with Britain among the Southern gentry over debt had as much impact on British-American relations as the taxes levied by Parliament. Indebtedness threatened the loss of land for many viewed by their fellow Americans as wealthy.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
New Yorkers pulls down a statue of King George III early in the American Revolution. The Bowery Boys

The American Revolutionary War allowed the planters to turn the tables on the Tobacco Lords. Tobacco crops were used by the newly formed state governments and the Continental Congress to finance the war loans received from France. Following the war, most of the debts incurred prior to hostilities were simply ignored by the planters, many of whom abandoned tobacco as their main cash crop. The Tobacco Lords in Glasgow turned their attention to the sugar and cotton markets in the colonies held by Britain in the Caribbean. Tobacco, or more accurately the tobacco trade, was thus both a contributing factor to the American Revolution and a means of financing it. Following the war, a domestic tobacco industry emerged in the United States, and the sale of their crops was no longer limited to the mother country for American tobacco planters.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
A possibly apocryphal tale has Revolutionary War hero Israel Putnam as the first man to plant tobacco in New England’s Connecticut Valley. Wikimedia

11. Cigars gradually replaced pipes and created a new tobacco industry in the 18th century

Sailors on the earliest voyages of exploration to the Americas observed the natives smoking tobacco rolled into tubes, held together by a large leaf wrapper. They adopted the habit, and it spread among the world’s ports. In 1762 Israel Putnam, later to be a hero of the American Revolution, returned to his native Connecticut after serving in the British Army briefly in Cuba. He brought with him Havana tobacco seeds, and a taste for the cigars he had acquired during his travels. Cigar factories were soon operating in Hartford, and tobacco grown from the Cuban seeds appeared in the Connecticut Valley, where it is still grown today, primarily for its use as cigar wrappers. Spanish trade with Havana led to cigars making their appearance in Spain about fifty years before they became popular in Connecticut.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
The earliest known image of somebody smoking a tobacco pipe. Wikimedia

By the 1820s, cigars were popular throughout Europe and the United States, displacing the pipe as the favored means of smoking tobacco. In Wheeling, Virginia, in 1840, Mifflin Marsh opened a cigar factory located along the Ohio River, which he named Marsh Wheeling. He produced a cigar he called the Marsh Wheeling Stogie. Rivermen plying the Ohio-Mississippi routes carried the cigars on their voyages, and the word stogie became a slang term for cigars throughout the Midwest and South. By the end of the antebellum period, cigars had become so popular that smoking lounges appeared on riverboats, smoking cars on trains, and smoking rooms in hotels and inns. All were the havens of men. The consumption of tobacco in any form by women was no longer considered socially acceptable. In Europe, cigars soon faced competition from yet another item designed to enable the inhaling of tobacco smoke.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
A cartoon from Punch depicting a British soldier lamenting his lack of warm clothing and having a smoke during the Crimean War. Wikimedia

12. The cigarette gained fashion during the Crimean War

By the mid-1800s tobacco was grown, processed, and traded across the globe. The expanding British Empire and competition for trade carried tobacco use to remote Pacific islands. It was grown and used in Asia, Australia, New Zealand, in Africa, and across the Americas. Primarily it was consumed by either smoking or chewing, the latter being especially popular in the United States, where each desk in the United States Senate was equipped with its own spittoon. On both sides of the Atlantic, the use of snuff had fallen into disfavor, considered a foppish affectation. Only in the Muslim world where sharia law held sway was tobacco banned, though at times several nations attempted to ban smoking. Several different types of tobacco were considered of the highest quality, particularly Virginia, Cuban, and in western Europe, Turkish. Cigars were the primary device for smoking tobacco, followed by pipes.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
An early spittoon. Wikimedia.

Tobacco wrapped in paper cylinders first appeared in France in the early 1830s. They were not immediately popular, though the French name for them, cigarette, has served as their descriptive ever since. During the Crimean War, French and British troops observed their enemies’ rolling tobacco in paper, usually newspaper, and smoking them. The troops took the idea home with them, but rolling one’s own cigarette was the rule. Commercially manufactured cigarettes, made by hand in tobacconists’ shops, were expensive. Only the more well-to-do could afford them, and they became a sign of conspicuous success. Even the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes smoked cigarettes (as well as cigars and pipes). His were made for him by his London tobacconist. Most cigarette smokers though were not so fortunate as Holmes, and had to roll their own cigarettes before smoking them.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
The cigarette rolling machine invented by James Bonsack made James Buchanan Duke an extremely wealthy man. Wikimedia

13. The advent of commercially manufactured cigarettes changed the tobacco industry

In 1876 a Richmond, Virginia tobacco processing firm then known as John F. Allen and Company offered a $75,000 prize for a cigarette rolling machine (equivalent to $ 1.75 million today). Several inventors attempted to win the sizable amount of cash. A Virginia inventor, James Albert Bonsack, filed a patent application for such a machine in 1880. He offered the machine to the Allen company, then renamed Allen and Ginter. They decided the machine was insufficiently reliable and rejected it, preferring to keep the reward money and designing a similar machine for their use, which did not infringe on Bonsack’s patent. Bonsack turned to another cigarette manufacturer, James Buchanan Duke, head of W. Duke and Sons in Richmond. By the end of the decade, Duke controlled 40% of the American cigarette market. That year Duke took over the four major competitors to his company, including Allen and Ginter.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
James Buchanan Duke. National Portrait Society.

Duke’s new conglomerate was named the American Tobacco Company. His near-monopoly controlled 90% of American cigarette production at the turn of the 20th century. He turned his attention to controlling the lucrative market for cigarettes in Britain and Ireland, and to prevent his doing so several British manufacturers merged to form the Imperial Tobacco Company. Imperial Tobacco attempted to break into the American market, and competition between the two tobacco giants led to an agreement. Under the agreement, American Tobacco controlled the market in the Americas, Imperial in Britain, and the companies formed a joint venture, British American Tobacco, to market primarily cigarettes in the rest of the world, including the British Empire. In 1906, American Tobacco, found to be in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, was broken up into four companies, Ligget and Myer’s (L & M), Lorillard, R. J. Reynolds, and American Tobacco.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
Feminist Frances Johnston posed with a cigarette and a stein of beer, while showing her stockings, guaranteed to provoke gasps in 1896, Library of Congress

14. Cigarette smoking became the dominant form of tobacco consumption in the early 20th century

The advent of commercially manufactured cigarettes, and aggressive advertising for them, led to a boom in tobacco consumption across the globe. Even before cigarettes were commercially manufactured on a large scale, Allen and Ginter had introduced cigarette cards in their packets of cigarettes. Collections of the cards, in multiple different series, encouraged smoking. The women’s suffrage movements adopted cigarette smoking as a sign of equality, even as they merged with temperance movements to suppress alcohol consumption. Women smoking was considered a social outrage among the male leaders of the day. In 1908, a woman smoking in public in New York City was arrested for her effrontery. Congress considered banning women from smoking in the District of Columbia in the early 1920s. Eager to develop a new market for their products, cigarette companies marketed brands directly towards women.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
Actress smoking. Sasha.

As had happened with snuffboxes centuries earlier, manufacturers developed new fashion items to accommodate smokers. Cigarette cases, slim boxes often made of gold or silver, elegantly engraved, appeared in jewelry stores, tobacco shops, and in department stores. They afforded the user a more debonair means of carrying cigarettes than the packs in which the product was delivered by manufacturers. Lighters also appeared, ranging in style from the mundane, mass-produced Ronson to jeweled custom-designed lighters from Tiffany. Women’s use of cigarettes expanded widely during the First World War and in the Roaring Twenties, despite efforts by governments around the world to contain it. By the 1930s women smoked freely in public, in the increasingly popular films of the day, and women’s smoking rooms were added to hotels and other establishments, to prevent feminine encroachment on the men’s smoking rooms.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
Babe Ruth, who eventually died from throat cancer, endorsing a “safe” cigarette. Wikimedia

15. Backlash against tobacco use was widespread in the early 20th century

Tobacco consumption continued to rise during the first half of the 20th century. Opposition to smoking grew more fervent among numerous diverse groups. In Germany, during the 1920s and the Great Depression, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party condemned smoking as a wasteful expenditure. Hitler banned smoking in his presence, though he did not consider outlawing the practice. Like the armies of the Allies during the Second World War, the Wehrmacht issued cigarettes to soldiers and sailors as part of their rations. Advertising for cigarette companies during the first half of the 20th century became one of the first uses of celebrity endorsement. Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio appeared in print advertising for cigarettes. So did Lou Gehrig, who advertised Camel non-filtered cigarettes in magazine advertisements with the claim, “they don’t get your wind, and I can smoke as many as I please”.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
American baseball player, John Peter “Honus” Wagner (1874-1955) swinging bat at game. Undated photograph. Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images.

Not all celebrities agreed with the use of their image to endorse smoking. Honus Wagner threatened to sue when a cigarette card appeared with his image, and succeeded with getting the card withdrawn. But Wagner, one of the original five members inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, did not oppose tobacco use, and both chewed tobacco and smoked cigars. He simply didn’t like cigarettes. The removal of the Wagner card contributed to it becoming one of the most valuable baseball cards to collectors. Actors appeared in advertisements endorsing cigarettes, both male and female, from the 1930s until cigarette advertising was banned in most countries. Even Santa Claus endorsed giving cigars and cigarettes as Christmas gifts. Despite the onslaught of advertising, a steady backlash, led by health professionals and researchers, warned the public of the hazards of smoking in the 20th century. The global tobacco industry fought back.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
Nazi leaders in 1926. After coming to power in 1933 they launched the first government-led anti-smoking campaign in modern history. Wikimedia

16. The Germans were the first to impose national restrictions against tobacco use

In the United States throughout its first century of existence as an independent nation, excise taxes on tobacco funded up to one-third of internal revenues. Similar taxes supported the governments of many of the nations of Europe, including the United Kingdom. Few government-imposed restrictions appeared regarding where tobacco could be consumed, other than age restrictions on the right to purchase. That changed in the 1930s and 1940s when Nazi Germany began to restrict tobacco use. The German government under the Nazis funded research into the harmful nature of tobacco use. They actively campaigned against smoking and urged the public to avoid tobacco consumption. Two papers published in Nazi Germany in 1943, reported the results of studies funded by the government. Both reported the link between tobacco and cancer.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
Anti-smoking campaign in Germany 1930-40s. The BMJ.

The Nazi government was the first in the world to issue restrictions on smoking in public places. Smoking was banned on public transit systems. Health lectures presented to German troops encouraged them to quit smoking, or never start. The arguments were based on health issues. Despite the lectures, cigarettes were still rationed to troops as a morale booster. Restaurants and other businesses were required to create separate smoking areas. Advertising for tobacco products was limited. Taxes on finished tobacco products, those paid by the consumer, were increased, in part to discourage smoking. Nearly all of the measures taken by governments to discourage smoking late in the 20th century were originally imposed in Nazi Germany. Measures to reduce smoking were unsuccessful. Largely as a backlash against the Nazi era, modern Germany has some of the least stringent anti-tobacco measures in the world today.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
Lucille Ball endorsing Chesterfield cigarettes, before Philp Morris sponsored her hit program I Love Lucy, Wikimedia

17. Smoking tobacco peaked worldwide in the 1950s

In the 1950s, throughout the world, smoking was unrestricted and ubiquitous. People smoked wherever they wished, in grocery stores, in hospitals, in movie theaters, on planes and trains, in college classrooms and lecture halls. Every professional sports team in America’s four major sports, baseball, football, basketball, and hockey, had an official cigarette sponsor. Cigarette companies sponsored motor sports as well. When flying on airlines, a small packet of complimentary cigarettes came with meals. Television performers smoked, both in character and out, and advertised the brands which sponsored their programs. News broadcasters smoked on the air. The location of ashtrays was an important consideration when evaluating a new automobile. Cigars and pipes still had their loyal fans, as did chewing tobacco and snuff, but cigarettes dominated tobacco consumption around the globe. Tobacco remained a major product of international trade in the post-war era.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
Before smoking was banned on planes in US. Business Insider.

Ominous rumblings from several governments and international health organizations led the tobacco industry to begin aggressively advertising “healthy” cigarettes. Chief among them were the filters which tipped king-size cigarettes. In the 1950s filtered cigarettes outsold unfiltered versions for the first time. Cigarette companies issued competing claims that their filters allowed full flavor while removing the harsher elements of smoke. In Britain, an estimated 81% of men smoked cigarettes (and 39% of women), and filtered cigarettes were marketed more towards the latter. During the decade the British Royal College of Physicians began collating the data connecting cigarettes to health problems, and by the end of the decade, they had enough to move toward a ban on cigarette advertising. They aimed their first volley against big tobacco at television advertising. In America, similar movements gained ground.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
1970s-era advertisement for the British Rothmans brand, which claims it is preferred by over 100 airlines. Pinterest

18. World governments began to move against tobacco use in the 1960s

In 1964 Luther Terry, then Surgeon General of the United States, released the results of an in-depth study on the health effects of smoking tobacco. The report found, unequivocally, that cigarettes were linked to cancers, heart disease, and other health issues. Supporting studies came shortly thereafter, from European and Asian countries, as well as academic institutions in the United States. The US government began what became a decades-long effort to curb consumption of tobacco. The first such step was the issuing of health warnings on cigarette packs. In 1967, the government, through the Federal Communications Commission, required television broadcasters to air one anti-smoking Public Service Announcement (PSA) for every three cigarette ads broadcast. The extensive advertising for cigarettes on television and radio was targeted next. On April 1, 1970, the United States followed Britain’s lead and banned all advertising for cigarettes on television.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
President Nixon. Wikimedia.

When President Nixon signed the act that day it was scheduled to take effect on January 2, 1971. The date was set so that broadcasters and advertisers could use the preceding New Years Day, a big sports day, to air the advertisements already bought and paid for. Such was the influence of the tobacco lobby in the United States. Despite being banned from television, cigarette advertising continued in magazines, newspapers, billboards, and other media, with many of the advertisers continuing the campaigns introduced on television. Such campaigns included the Marlboro Man, I’d rather fight than switch (Tareyton); You’ve come a long way baby (Virginia Slims, aimed at women) and many others. The television ban initiated the start of a long and continuing decline of smokers in the United States. In 1965 about 42% of the adult population smoked cigarettes. By 2017, it was less than 17%.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
Racing sponsorship allowed cigarette companies logos to be displayed on televised events, circumventing the advertising bans. Pinterest

19. Bans on other forms of tobacco advertising followed

For many years tobacco advertisers evaded the ban on television by sponsoring televised events, thus ensuring their logos and product names continued to appear on television. Automobile racing, including NASCAR, Indy Cars, Formula 1, and sports car racing, all had a heavy presence of tobacco sponsorship. NASCAR’s annual championship trophy, the Winston Cup, was named for a brand of cigarettes manufactured by R. J. Reynolds. A major horse race held in the fall of each year, as part of the Fall Championship Series, was the Marlboro Cup Invitational Handicap, sponsored by Philip Morris USA. Another Marlboro Cup was awarded to the winner of an international soccer tournament, again sponsored by Philip Morris. Though banned from producing and broadcasting cigarette commercials on television, tobacco companies were successful in keeping their products visible on the medium.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
The Marlboro Cup. Paulick Report.

Further crackdowns on tobacco advertising ensued, and as the 21st century began tobacco sponsored sporting events faded away. Advertising in print and on billboards followed. In response, the tobacco companies concentrated their efforts on marketing their products in emerging countries in Africa, Asia, and the former Soviet Union. Those efforts increased as local governments in Europe, the United States, Canada, and South America enacted legislation and ordinances further restricting where smoking was allowed. Nonetheless, tobacco production remained a big business worldwide. In the early 21st century, China leads the world in tobacco production, with over 2.2 million tons per annum. The United States, by comparison, produces 241,000 tons, yet still ranks fourth among tobacco-producing nations. Tobacco remains a labor-intensive, ecologically harmful, dangerous business for its cultivators and curers. Yet in many emerging countries it is an important part of the national economy.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today
The first Duke tobacco factory in Durham, North Carolina, circa 1883. Wikimedia

20. Tobacco continues to shape world trade and economies today

Tobacco first came to Europe as a result of the voyages of Christopher Columbus. It soon became a leading export from the European colonies of the New World to their mother countries in the old. From there it became a trade item with the Arab world, Asian countries, the islands of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, until it was ubiquitous worldwide. Great fortunes were made from its cultivation and production. Its production contributed to the development of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, to the divisions which led to the American Civil War, and to the European Scramble for Africa in the 19th century. Yet it has done some good as well. In 1924 James Buchanan Duke endowed Trinity College in Durham, North Carolina, with $40 million of his tobacco-enhanced wealth. The school president renamed the institution Duke University, in tribute to James Duke’s father, Washington Duke.

Tobacco has Made the World What it is Today

Ironically, Duke University is home to one of the world’s leading cancer research centers. And that sums up tobacco and its impact on shaping the modern world. It has enriched thousands, and destroyed millions. It built fortunes for planters, producers, manufacturers, shippers, and retailers, as well as advertisers. The Marlboro brand, one of the most recognizable logos in the world, was worth over $30 billion by the onset of the 21st century. All of the major American tobacco companies have diversified into other industries, and both R. J. Reynolds and American Tobacco dropped the word “tobacco” from their names, with American Tobacco becoming American Brands. Yet all continue to aggressively market their tobacco products, and though smoking’s popularity in the United States has dwindled, cigarettes and other tobacco products continue to expand their markets globally.


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