History of Tobacco: A Lucrative Vice

The subject of a huge and controversial industry, tobacco spread from the Americas to the mouths of hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

Apr 7, 2024By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

history of tobacco


Tobacco is a controversial product. Every year, the tobacco industry makes over 600 billion dollars in sales despite monumental efforts to curb its consumption. Over the past few decades, smoking tobacco has gone from being seen as a benign pastime to a life-threatening and addictive habit that harms not just the consumer but those around them.


Needless to say, tobacco largely has a negative image today, and companies that sell it are often seen as purveyors of death. Of course, tobacco didn’t always have this reputation. Before it became an industry, tobacco was enjoyed by Native Americans long before Europeans ever knew of its existence.


Tobacco is a contentious subject, as is its history.


Pre-Colonial Tobacco

lakota sioux pipe
A Lakota tobacco pipe and bowl, ca. 1865. Source: Adolf Spohr Collection, Gift of Larry Sheerin. NA.504.125, Buffalo Bill Center of the West


Native Americans have been growing and using tobacco longer than anyone else in the world since it was in North America where the plant originated. Archeological evidence in Mexico suggests the plants may have been cultivated as far back as 1400 BCE, and it is likely the plant was used throughout much of the North American continent. Recent archeological finds have pushed the use of tobacco much further back than previously thought. Evidence now suggests the tobacco plant may have been used from around 10,000 BCE.

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What is known for sure is that it was used by the Maya of Central America in the first century BCE. At this point, it was being used at least as far north as what is now Mississippi.


Tobacco was also used as a cure for many ailments by various Native American nations. Among the Iroquois, it was used to cure earache. The Cherokee used it as a painkiller, and in Guatemala, it was used as an antiseptic. The proximity of many of the tribes also meant that customs and traditions were shared with several groups of tribes rather than being specific to one. Among the Blackfoot and the Crow, tobacco was so important that it was the only crop cultivated.


It was also developed into medicine and was used to cure a wide range of ailments such as earache, stomach ache, asthma, sore eyes, fever, depression, burns, and insect bites.


By the time Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World, Native Americans were using tobacco in different forms. They smoked it in cigars, through pipes, and used it as snuff.


Tobacco and Colonization

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Thomas Cavendish (1560-92), Sir Francis Drake (1540-96) and Sir John Hawkins (1532-95). Source: Royal Museums Greenwich


After the arrival of Europeans, the societal landscape of the Americas changed forever. Creating industry was of utmost importance, allowing the colonies to be financially self-sufficient. In the first years of contact between Europeans and Native Americans, tobacco formed a valuable form of currency between the two groups.


In the first half of the 16th century, people in Europe were introduced to tobacco, and a substantial demand developed, first in the Iberian peninsula and then slowly northwards and westwards. Frenchman Jean Nicot is credited with having introduced tobacco to the French royal court.


manufacture nationale des tabacs marseille
Manufacture Nationale des Tabacs. Source: La Friche


As in the Americas, people were not yet aware of the dangers of tobacco. The plant was considered for its medicinal properties. Many doctors wrote about it in medical treatises, but tobacco smoking was not completely without suspicion.


Some found it a distasteful habit that produced a foul smell. One of the detractors was King James I of England (who was also James VI of Scotland), who summed up his feelings by noting that the habit smelled awful, was harmful to the lungs and the brain, and conjured smoke as would be found in Hell. Pope Urban VIII was also not a fan. He threatened excommunication for anyone found smoking in church; however, the Catholic Church did not ban tobacco outright.


Tobacco was introduced into England around 1573 by naval administrator and slave trader John Hawkins. Like in other parts of Europe where it had been introduced, it was an immediate success. Not only was it revered for its supposed medicinal properties, but it was thoroughly enjoyed for its narcotic effect.


ottoman nobleman smoking
An Ottoman nobleman stands smoking a long-stemmed pipe by D. Lynch. Source: Wellcome Collection


In Russia, the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church condemned smoking as a mortal sin, and in 1634, under the rule of Tsar Michael, smoking tobacco and using snuff were banned for everyone, with the exception of foreigners in Moscow. Those found guilty were threatened with whipping, nose-slitting, and, in extreme cases, the death penalty. The law, however, was not enforced with any vigor. Half a century later, it was repealed by Tsar Peter I.


Similarly, smoking was banned in the Ottoman Empire in 1633 by Sultan Murad IV. His successor, Ibrahim the Mad, lifted the ban, which allowed smoking tobacco to be taxed. Despite the tax, smoking became widespread and was adopted throughout the empire, being a pastime enjoyed by both men and women.


Colonial enterprises around the world resulted in the spread of tobacco to all parts of the world. It was introduced to Japan by the Portuguese in 1542 and to Australia in the early 1700s. Tradesmen and those who traveled took the product far and wide, introducing it to grand civilizations all the way down to tiny tribes. For many, their first encounter with tobacco was also their first encounter with Europeans. For native Australians, it was introduced by Indonesian fishermen before Europeans made serious efforts to colonize the continent.


Tobacco Goes Back to America

tobacco field 1
A tobacco field in Virginia. Source: Creative Commons / Kipp Teague / Flickr


Of all places touched by the tobacco trade, it was perhaps the North American colonies and the subsequent United States where it had the most socio-political and economic impact. Tobacco was largely responsible for transforming the southern colonies from a subsistence to an agrarian economy, allowing the colonies to become self-sufficient and economically competitive with international rivals. Tobacco became so crucial to the economy that it was even backed by the gold standard.


The first colonist to successfully grow tobacco was John Rolfe, who, in 1609, arrived in Jamestown, Virginia during a particularly difficult time for the colonists. They had just lived through a brutal winter and were facing famine. They had also struggled to find any way to support themselves financially, and many attempts at creating industries had failed.


anton hohenstein the wedding of pocahontas
The Wedding of Pocahontas With John Rolfe by George Spohni after Anton Hohenstein. Source: Library of Congress


John Rolfe arrived in this struggle and acquired land that would become a farm from Powhatan, the local native chief. He had brought tobacco seeds with him from the Caribbean and tried his hand at planting them.


His farm was incredibly successful, and it brought him a considerable amount of wealth. John Rolfe also married the daughter of Chief Powhatan, Pocahontas, and he returned with her to England. Pocahontas sadly died at the age of 20 or 21 from an unknown disease (possibly tuberculosis or pneumonia) and was buried on the banks of the Thames in Gravesend, a few miles southeast of London.


John Rolfe returned to the Jamestown colony and continued his efforts in the tobacco industry, transforming Jamestown into a significant trade center and exporting large amounts of tobacco to Europe.


richard laurie tobacco plantation
Tobacco Plantation by Richard H. Laurie, 1821. Source: Creative Commons / Flickr


Tobacco was widely adopted as a cash crop amongst the European settlers, and regions where it grew well were prepared for massive plantations. Tobacco was thus one of the foundations for the trans-Atlantic slave trade that brought many Africans in bondage to the American shores.


As the trade grew, so did the demand for bigger tobacco farms and the need for a bigger labor pool. For the most part, in the early years of the colonies, much manual labor was supplied by indentured servants. Far more convenient, however, were slaves. Thus, the slave trade began to boom as hundreds of thousands of Africans were uprooted from their homes a continent away and transported in dismal conditions to work on the tobacco and cotton plantations in North America, especially in the South, where their population swelled to the millions.


It is estimated that between 1619 and 1865, enslaved people in the American colonies contributed approximately 410 billion hours of labor. To say that the American economy was built on the backs of slaves would be an understatement.


Throughout the centuries, the tobacco industry continued to grow, and it survived the shift in American politics that brought the emancipation of slaves and a bloody civil war. In 1881, an inventor named James Bonsack invented a machine that produced individual cigarettes much faster than the hand-rolling method that had been employed until then.


Tobacco in the 20th Century

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A newspaper article about the Nazi attempt to target smoking and drinking from Twin Falls News. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC


At the end of the 19th century, there began an effort to warn of the dangers of tobacco smoking, but these efforts were restricted to small practices, and the warnings never reached any level to significantly impact the public. Smoking continued to be profitable as more and more people took up the habit.


Throughout the first half of the 20th century, smoking became immensely popular with women as well as men. Marketing campaigns began targeting both demographics.


It was only in Nazi Germany that a serious effort was made to curb smoking, and the first government-issued anti-smoking campaign was launched, creating ideas such as “sin tax” and banning smoking in many places. This was an immense irony given the widespread acceptance of other drugs in Nazi Germany.


smoking can cause a slow and painful death
A warning label. Source: Wikimedia Commons, via Smithsonian Magazine


In the years following the war, studies would be conducted in the United Kingdom and the United States. In 1948, a study by doctors in the UK found that there was a direct correlation between smoking and lung cancer, and in the 1960s, doctors in the US showed that there was a link between smoking and other forms of cancer as well.


Since then, public efforts to curb the use of tobacco products have gained momentum. Advertising has been pulled from many media, and warning labels on tobacco products are required in many countries.


While some countries have been slow to adopt anti-smoking measures, it seems clear that on a global scale, the use of tobacco is declining. Today, there are 1.3 billion tobacco users compared with 1.32 billion in 2015. By 2025, this figure is expected to drop to 1.25 billion. While these differences may not seem like much, when one factors in the growth of the human population, it becomes more significant.


jo camel ad
Vintage Joe Camel advertisement. Source: eBay


Tobacco was a huge driving force in world trade for many centuries. Like many other plants from the New World, it existed in relative obscurity until the age of colonization introduced it to the entire world. Unlike many other products from the New World, such as potatoes, tomatoes, avocados, chilies, peppers, corn, and many other foods, the days of tobacco use may be numbered.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.