Tobacco Research Paper

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Tobacco is a plant in the genus Nicotiana that contains the addictive drug nicotine. The leaves of the tobacco plant can be processed and used for smoking, chewing, or inhaling. Originating in the Americas and introduced to Europe in the sixteenth century, people have used tobacco for centuries. It was not until the 1930s that physicians realized the health implications associated with tobacco.

The tobacco plant is a member of the family Solanaceae and the genus Nicotiana. It is a coarse, large-leaved perennial that grows in warm climates and rich, well-drained soils. Tobacco’s defining feature for people is its nicotine, which makes up 2 to 7 percent of the leaf. In concentrated form, nicotine is used as an insecticide and drug. It acts primarily on the human autonomic nervous system and, in small doses, imparts feelings of alertness and pleasure. Nicotine is physiologically addicting, which is perhaps one of the major reasons for tobacco’s global spread.

Early History

Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) was first grown by natives in the pre-Columbian Americas. It is thought to have first been cultivated in the Peruvian Andes, where it was used for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. From there it spread throughout the continent. Evidence shows that the Aztecs smoked tobacco leaves stuffed in hollow reeds and that Central and North American natives smoked thick bundles of tobacco wrapped in palm leaves and maize husks. Because tobacco was a medium that connected the natural and supernatural worlds, shamans used large quantities of it in religious ceremonies and healing rituals. In order to alleviate certain illnesses, for example, shamans placed tobacco on patients’ skin, eyes, gums, and tongue or boiled the leaves in water and fed it to patients as a liquid.

Although tobacco was introduced from Mesoamerica to North America about 200 CE, Europeans did not come into contact with it until many centuries later. Christopher Columbus became aware of tobacco when he visited the West Indies, where he had seen the Cuban natives smoking small cigars (tabacos) through their nostrils. He brought a few tobacco seeds and leaves with him back to Spain. At first, because tobacco was a rare commodity, smoking signified social status and wealth. Most Europeans did not get their first taste of tobacco until the mid- 1500s, when travelers and diplomats like Englishman Sir Walter Raleigh and the Frenchman Jean Nicot (for whom nicotine is named) popularized its use. By the early 1600s tobacco had spread throughout most of South America, Europe, the Caribbean, and the North American colonies.

Tobacco in the American South

Tobacco soon became an important commodity in Europe but an even more important commodity for the American colonies. Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina’s eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century economies depended almost entirely on tobacco, which was harvested as a cash crop and sent to European and North American colonial markets. Indeed, tobacco was the single greatest factor in the development of the southern colonies’ economic, political, and social life.

The Englishman John Rolfe, who observed local Native Americans growing different strains of tobacco, cultivated the first successful commercial crop of Nicotiana tabacum in Virginia in 1612. In fact, the Native American princess Pocahontas was the first “poster girl” of tobacco, and her marriage to Rolfe assured that native peoples would not attack the Jamestown colony or destroy the new cash crop. By the 1620s tobacco had become Virginia’s major crop.

Virginia’s fledgling tobacco industry created great demands for land and labor. Because tobacco quickly depleted the land by removing nitrogen and potash from the soil and depositing toxic elements, farmers seldom planted more than three or four crops on the same plot of land before they abandoned it to corn or wheat. Thus colonial planters constantly cleared forest to make room for more tobacco lands and began to establish large plantations deeper in the interior.

For the next two centuries, tobacco cultivation, which was labor intensive, fueled the demand for labor, particularly imported African slave labor. To start a crop, seeds were sown in beds in late spring. Plants had to be carefully weeded and cut. In early fall, ripe plants were cut and hung on pegs in a ventilated tobacco house to cure for a month or more. The leaves were then cut from the plant, tied into bundles, and shipped to England and the other colonies. At first, planters relied on indentured servants imported from England for this labor. But after 1700 tobacco plantations employing several dozen imported African slaves or more were common, and, by the 1790s, more than 650,000 slaves worked on tobacco plantations. By the time of the Civil War, the South’s agricultural economy rested on the labor of more than 4 million African slaves.

By the 1830s, however, the instability of the tobacco market, combined with soil exhaustion, had created unfavorable conditions for tobacco expansion. Many farmers in the old tobacco-growing regions of Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina shifted to other crops, and the center of tobacco cultivation moved westward. In the mid-nineteenth century, while the North experienced dramatic economic growth, the South remained primarily agrarian. Short-staple cotton replaced tobacco as the region’s dominant agricultural commodity by the late 1800s.

Cigars, Cigarettes, and Cancer

Tobacco was initially cultivated for pipe smoking, tobacco chewing, and snuff dipping. Cigars became common in the early 1800s, and cigarettes became popular in the 1860s, although they had existed in crude form since the early 1600s. The spread of “Bright” tobacco, a yellow leaf grown in Virginia and North Carolina, combined with the invention of the cigarette-making machine in the late 1880s, created new markets for cigarettes. Improvements in cultivation and processing likewise reduced the acid content in tobacco, making cigarette smoking more appealing to the masses.

The harmful health effects of tobacco were not initially known. In fact, many physicians, who looked at Native American uses of tobacco, recommended the leaf for medicinal uses. But by the early twentieth century, scientists and physicians began to address the harmful health effects of tobacco. In 1930, German researchers statistically correlated cancer and smoking. In the following decade the American Cancer Society linked smoking and lung cancer. A Reader’s Digest article published in 1952 outlined the dangers of smoking and had tremendous impact on the smoking community. Tobacco sales subsequently declined. The tobacco industry countered claims that linked nicotine and cancer but nonetheless introduced “healthier” lines of cigarettes, including filtered cigarettes with low-tar formulas. By the 1960s, however, the formation of the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health again threatened big tobacco by showing that the average smoker was ten times more likely to develop lung cancer than was the nonsmoker. In 2008 the World Health Organization reported that tobacco related ailments are the leading preventable cause of death worldwide, accounting for as many as 5.4 million deaths in 2004 and possibly as many as 100 million deaths throughout the twentieth century.

Since the 1960s the tobacco industry has been engaged with the government and citizens’ groups in battles over the proper labeling, advertising, and sales of tobacco. In 1971 all broadcast advertising in the United States was banned, and the days when one heard a famous soprano declare, “I protect my precious voice with Lucky Strikes” ended. The first major legal challenge to the tobacco industry came in 1993, when Rose Cipollone, a smoker dying from lung cancer, filed suit against Liggett Group, claiming that the company had failed to warn her about tobacco’s health risks. She won a $400,000 judgment against the company, but the judgment was later overturned. In 1994 the state of Mississippi filed the first of twenty-two state lawsuits seeking to recoup millions of dollars from tobacco companies for smokers’ Medicaid bills.

While estimates vary, tobacco production and consumption is on the rise. World tobacco production is thought to have risen from 4.2 million tons in 1971 to an average of 6.9 million tons between 1998 and 2000. China, India, and Brazil are the top three tobacco producers; the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization projects that world tobacco leaf production will reach 7.1 million tons in 2010.

While smoking rates have leveled or dropped slightly in the developed world, they are on the rise in the developing world, particularly those countries experiencing rapid economic growth. Of the world’s estimated 1.22 billion smokers, 1 billion of them live in the developing world. In many Western countries smoking is now banned in public places such as restaurants.


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  2. Breen, T. H. (1985). Tobacco culture: The mentality of the great Tidewater planters on the eve of revolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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  4. Craven, A. O. (1965). Soil exhaustion as a factor in the agricultural history of Virginia and Maryland, 1606–1860. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, Publishers.
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