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Tobacco, Nicotiana tabacca, is in the botanical family Solanaceae which also contains the tomato, potato, and peppers. By the 1560s French politician Jean Nicot had been introduced tobacco to the French court: hence the Latin name Nicotiana which was coined by Linnaeus, the etymology of the epithet tabacum being uncertain, possibly a place name or type of pipe used by native American Indians. The commercial species in the genus of about 70 species, are N. tabacum and N. rustica which occur naturally from SW Ecuador to Bolivia.



Tobacco plantation, Pinar del Río, Cuba
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Henryk Kotowski Accessed 4 May 2017

Origin & use

Though the properties associated with tobacco (a word taken from the now extinct Taino people of the Caribbean) had been already appreciated for many millennia in the Americas (it was used by the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas) where N. rustica was the favoured species of Central and Eastern America. Native American Indians smoked tobacco before hunting and during religious ceremonies, the smoking of the ‘peace pipe’ being an important ritual during political negotiations and were a noted feature of the discussions over European land acquisition.

Like other psychotropic drugs, most notably opium and alcohol, nicotine was regarded as a doorway into the supernatural world, a gift from the gods who provided them as a means of connecting the physical and spiritual worlds. from the earliest known times tobacco was taken in various ways, rolled into cigarettes and cigars, often mixed with other substances, ground into a powder and sniffed as snuff, chewed in plugs, eaten, drunk as an infusion, rubbed into the body, absorbed as an enema, or smoked in a pipe. As a form of relaxation it was a part of the social life of alehouses, coffee houses, gentleman’s clubs and the like which sometimes boasted a smoking lounge. The emergence of the cheap cigar and cigarette only eventuated in the 19th century. Tobacco consumption was associated with assorted rituals and accoutrements like snuff boxes, cigarette cases, expensive pipes, smoking jackets, and so on – tobacco etiquette included the temporary acceptance of sneezing, coughing, spitting, and discharge of phlegm. Countries developed their own distinctive kinds or blends of cigarettes so today we have distinctive French, Turkish, and Indonesian brands.


Tobacco only came to European attention after the discovery and early exploration of the Americas in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, smoking being first observed by by Columbus’s men in the interior of Cuba and also observed by French explorer Jacques Cartier in the 1530s as a practise of the American natives of the St Lawrence River. Today’s preferred species N. tabacum was introduced from Mexico by settlers on the eastern seaboard.

Conqistador Rodrigo de Jerez, a Spanish crewman on the 1492 voyage of Columbus’s Santa Maria was possibly the first European smoker when he took a puff of smouldering rolled tobacco leaves offered by a native Cuban. He is credited with introducing the practice of smoking to Europe. The story is told that, back in Europe, the sight of smoke pouring out of his mouth and nose so frightened his fellows that he was thrown into prison only to discover, on his release, that smoking had become a national habit.[1] When Columbus’s first made landfall in the Americas on 12 Octover 1492 on the island that he called San Salvador among the gifts brought to him by the indigenous people were the dried and fragrant leaves of tobacco. Following the arrival of Europeans, tobacco became one of the primary products fueling colonization and along with, first sugar (Saccharum) and then cotton (Gossypium), was a reason for the introduction of African slave labor on crop plantations.

The Portuguese, as the worlds major trading nation at this time, were the first to cultivate tobacco outside the Americas and by 1548 was a thriving commercial business in Brazil. An Aztec Herbal of 250 medicinal plants was translated from from Nahuatl to Latin as Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis in about 1552 by Martin de la Cruz and Juan Badinao and this work was extended by botanist Nicolas Monardes (1493-1588) from Seville who recorded many alleged medicinal properties of tobacco in his Materia Medica (1577), thus encouraging its use. Tobacco was introduced to France from Brazil in 1556 but its introduction is best known through the activities of Jean Nicot who was sent to the Portuguese trading capital Lisbon to arrange a marriage between the Portuguese king and the French king’s sister, sending tobacco plants and snuff back to the French royal court from whence it had, by 1570, spread more generally through French society having acquired the name ‘nicotiane’ in commemoration of its supplier. It was probably from Lisbon that tobacco also found its way to Turkey, Italy, Germany and the rest of Europe.


Tobacco was probably first introduced to England c. 1564 by the slave trader John Hawkins (1532-1595) although Francis Drake must also take some of the credit when he brought back supplies in 1575 and introduced Sir Walter Raleigh to the habit in 1585 and thence to the court of Elizabeth I while at about this time the long-stemmed clay pipe, so popular first with sailors and then the general population, came into use. Plantations were soon established in the Caribbean but the first cultivated crop was planted at the colony of Jamestown (founded 1607) in Chesapeake Bay, Virginia in 1612 with plantation slaves introduced in 1619. Heavy British taxes on tobacco and the insistance, under the Navigation Act of 1651, that all American products were to be imported on English-owned ships contributed to the American War of Independence. Tobacco has remaine an important source of government revenue to the present day.

By the 1620s smoking in England (and elsewhere) was as much a part of the gentleman’s life as hunting, riding, and playing cards[2] at a cost of from 4-36 pence per pound. However, by the 1660s prices had dropped to about 1d per pound, and by the 1690s smoking had been adopted across society with most men carrying a clay pipe in their pocket.[3]

It was soon a fashionable fad passing quickly to other countries and the lower classes. It is possibly the first botanical luxury good that became global and, like cotton, acted as a global currency.

Active ingredient

The psychoactive ingredient of tobacco, the alkaloid nicotine, was extracted in 1828 by German chemists, its biological function no doubt being to deter insect pests. Nicotine is a highly addictive stimulant that is also a poison – hence its use as a fumigant and insecticide.


Curing of the leaves causes oxidation and degrading that releases the aromas and flavours found so attractive. The curing is done in several ways: by air-drying using hot air, leaving in the Sun, and exposing to smoke. Cigar leaves are generally allowed to ferment. Tobacco plantations could be recognized by large the airy barns where the huge leaves were hung out to dry.


Users were quick to believe that it served as a cure for most human ailments and slow to recognize its potential deadly nature. As a global addictive drug it has likely killed more humans than any other plant, and as it is also a great revenue-raiser it has always been difficult to eradicate. In 2009 China supplied about 43% of global market weighing about 7 million tonnes. For many years there was a battle between cigarette companies and those concerned about the addictive and carcinogenic properties of tobacco. An acknowledged link between smoking and lung cancer was not made until 1950 after which various other hazards to health have been established. Formerly regarded as a ‘man’s’ prerogative smoking was gradually adopted by women but is now generally regarded as an undesirable and antisocial habit that is on the wane. Scientifically the plant has been used to study the genetics of hybridization and in 1982 was the first artificially genetically modified plant with many to follow.

Tobacco wealth facilitated urban, industrial, and colonial development. Like other major economic plants tobacco has been associated with the benefits and miseries of colonialism, and especially the Atlantic trade in plantation slaves. Through its influence on international finances it was a part of the emergence of nations in the New World and flourishing of countries in the Old World.

Following alcohol consumption, it was the milder drugs of sugar, caffeine, and nicotine that stimulated colonialism.


This timeline is adapted from one cited on the internet at

6000 BCE – Native Americans first start cultivating the tobacco plant
c. 1 BCE – Indigenous American tribes start smoking tobacco in religious ceremonies and for medicinal purposes
1492 – Christopher Columbus first encounters dried tobacco leaves. They were given to him as a gift by the American Indians
1492 – Tobacco plant and smoking introduced to Europeans
1531 – Europeans start cultivation of the tobacco plant in Central America
1558 – First attempt at tobacco cultivation in Europe fail
1571 – European doctors start publishing works on healthy properties of the tobacco plant, claiming it can cure a myriad of diseases, from toothache to lockjaw and cancer
1600 – Tobacco used as cash-crop – a monetary standard that lasts twice as long as the gold standard
1602 – King James I condemns tobacco in his treatise A Counterblast to Tobacco
1614 – Tobacco shops open across Britain, selling the Virginia blend tobacco
1624 – Popes ban use of tobacco in holy places, considering sneezing (snuff) too close to sexual pleasures
1633 – Turkey introduces a death penalty for smoking but it doesn’t stay in effect for long and is lifted in 1647
1650 – Tobacco arrives in Africa – European settlers grow it and use it as a currency
1700 – African slaves are first forced to work on tobacco plantations, years before they become a workforce in the cotton fields
1730 – First American tobacco companies open their doors in Virginia
1753 – Tobacco genus named by a Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus – nicotiana rustica and nicotiana tabacum named for the first time
1791 – British doctors find that snuff leads to increased risk of nose cancer
1794 – First American tobacco tax
1826 – Nicotine isolated for the first time
1847 – Philip Morris opens their first shop in Great Britain, selling hand-rolled Turkish cigarettes
1961 – First American cigarette factory produces 20 million cigarettes
1880 – Bonsack develops the first cigarette-rolling machine
1890 – American Tobacco Company opens its doors
1990 – 4 billion cigarettes are sold this year and manufacture is on the rise
1902 – Philip Morris starts selling cigarettes in the US – one of the brands offered is Marlboro
1912 – First reported connection between smoking and lung cancer
1918 – An entire generation of young men returns from war addicted to cigarettes
1924 – Over 70 billion of cigarettes are sold in the US
1925 – Philip Morris starts marketing to women, tripling the number of female smokers in just 10 years
1947 – Lorillard chemist admits that there is enough evidence that smoking can cause cancer
1950 – 50% of a cigarette now consists of the cigarette filter tip
1967 – Surgeon General definitively links smoking to lung cancer and presents evidence that it is causing heart problems
1970 – Tobacco manufacturers legally obliged to print a warning on the labels that smoking is a health hazard
1970 – 1990 – Tobacco companies faced with a series of lawsuits. Courts limit their advertising and marketing
1992 – Nicotine patch is introduced – in the following years more cessation products will start being developed
1996 – Researchers find conclusive evidence that tobacco damages a cancer-suppressor gene
1997 – Liggett Tobacco Company issues a statement acknowledging that tobacco causes cancer and carries a considerable health risk
1997 – Tobacco companies slammed with major lawsuits – ordered to spend billions of dollar on anti-smoking campaigns over the next 25 years predominantly focused on educating the young on dangers of smoking
1997 – For the first time in history a tobacco company CEO admits on trial that cigarettes and related tobacco products cause cancer. His name was Bennett Lebow
1990 – 2000– Bans on public smoking come into effect in most states in America, as well as in other countries in the world

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Myan priest smoking

Mayan priest smoking from a smoking tube
A 19th century rendering of a Classic Era Mayan carving from the temple at Palenque, Mexico.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Accessed 4 May 2017

Media Gallery

The Surprising History of Tobacco

Mr Cognito – 2017 – 9:04

The Origins of Tobacco – Addicted To Pleasure – BBC

BBC Studios – 2015 – 4:00

Citations & notes

[1] Musgrave & Musgrave, p. 19
[2] Musgrave & Musgrave, p. 20
[3] Ferguson, 2003, p. 15


Ferguson, N. 2003. Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. Penguin Books
Laws, B. 2010. Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History. Crows Nest: NSW
Musgrave T. & W. 2000. An empire of Plants: People and Plants that Changed the World. Cassell: London


First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
. . . revised 3 November 2020
. . . minor revision 31 December 2021


Tobacco plantation, Pinar del Río, Cuba
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Henryk Kotowski Accessed 4 May 2017

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