Tobacco can refer to any of seventy-odd species in the genus Nicotiana. Nicotiana is part of the family Solanaceae, which includes tomatoes and peppers and is more commonly known as nightshade.
Nicotiana tabacum, which represents the vast bulk of today's commercial tobacco production, is annual, with broad, simple leaves and purple flowers similar to those produced by belladonna. While genus Nicotiana grows in warm regions worldwide, N. tabacum is native to the Americas.
Among the gifts presented to Columbus by the Arawaks in October 1492 were "certain dried leaves" bearing the alkaloid smell of nicotine, which Columbus discarded. He shortly observed Arawak and Taino "drinking smoke" from tubes of rolled tobacco leaf. Upon return to Europe, one of Columbus' shipmates--Rodrigo de Jerez--was imprisoned for seven years by the inquisition because the smoke billowing from his face terrified his neighbors.
In the world catalyzed by the mooring of Columbus' ships west of Europe, tobacco continues to cause more preventable death than war.
The oldest known tobacco plant exists as a fossilized block originating in the Pleistocene. It was found in 2010.
Most plants in genus Nicotiana bear little nicotine. Even plants outside Nicotiana carry it in limited amounts, such as the aforementioned belladonna. Scant evidence of tobacco use in antiquity exists in the Near East and Africa; evidence of habitual use exists only in the Americas.
Our best evidence is that Nicotiana tabaccum appeared in the Western Hemisphere around 6000 BCE. Traditional use and trade was widespread, even among children; its use punctuated meals and commerce; its smoke eddied through ceremonies, believed to communicate wishes. Cultivation sites in Mexico date from 1400 BCE. Those in the Court of Montezuma smoked tobacco in pipes mingled with other herbs, while everyone else smoked assemblies similar to cigars.
Tobacco was everywhere in the Americas by 1 CE. The diffusion of the Mayan empire five centuries later saw the adaptation of its smoking rituals in the Mississippi Valley.
While Rodrigo de Jerez was Europe's first smoking addict, credit for the introduction of N. tabacum to the Old World falls to Ramon Pane, a monk who also accompanied Columbus. He described snuff and pipe use at length and documented the first native tobacco use in Europe--quite possibly Jerez's--in his De Insularium Ribitus.
In 1559, on orders of Spanish king Philip II, Hernandez de Boncalo brought N. tabacum seeds from the New World and planted them in a region near Toledo, called "los Cigaralles" for persistent cicada infestations. Prior to the development of lighter strains, tobacco smoke was too harsh to be inhaled directly; we have this to thank for the invention of the bong.
Europeans initially regarded tobacco as a panacea. French ambassador Jean Nicot de Villemein sent snuff to Catherine de Medici to cure her son's migraines. German doctor Michael Bernhard Valentini's 1571 Polychresta Exotica recommended tobacco smoke enemas for (conveniently enough) hysteria, colic, dysentary, and hernia. This wasn't without precedent; smoke enemas were observed by colonists in Peru as well. The phrase "blow smoke up your ass" is derived specifically from the eighteenth century practice of administering smoke enemas to drowning victims. It didn't work!
Tobacco's health effects have been in question since at least 1602, when an anonymous doctor's Worke of Chimney Sweepers claimed tobacco smoke dried out a man's humors in a way similar to coal dust, finally robbing him of his "spermatical humidity." Doctors complained that people were able to procure tobacco without a prescription. Price controls bubbled across Europe, including a 4,000% increase on import taxes imposed by James I.
The American colonies entered the world tobacco market under English protection with the founding of Jamestown. As Virginia Company broke waves of colonists against hostile natives, bad winters, and a peninsula plagued with salty groundwater, plots of tobacco land scooped acres at a time from the New World, eventually cutting the natives off from the sea.
Tobacco was a major European industry by 1700. In Cuba, after Columbus butchered the Taino with inventiveness and gusto, Nicotiana tabacum was a major cash crop alongside sugarcane. George Washington is known to have generated an unimpressive tobacco crop with the use of some 315 slaves; tobacco, currency through large sections of the American Colonies, stood as collateral on debt for the Revolutionary War. Lung and head cancers grew in prominence worldwide.
Following the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark relied heavily on tobacco (and whiskey, it must be said) to ease relations with tribes along the Mississippi, particularly the Sioux. Later, having reached Oregon with depleted tobacco reserves, they smoked crabtree bark. Arable land speculators were but one interest that trickled over the Great Plains in subsequent years.
Cigarettes as we know them appeared in Egypt in 1832, an improvisation of Turkish soldiers conducting a siege at Acre. Having devised a more efficient way to fire cannon using paper tubes, they were rewarded with a pound of tobacco. Their pipe was broken.
Philip Morris appeared in England in 1847, selling hand-rolled Turkish cigarettes.
Until the mid-nineteenth century, the vast majority of tobacco sold in the US was in plug form. In his 1842 American Notes for General Circulation, Charles Dickens unspools a vivid description of "tobacco-tinctured saliva" on carpeted floors throughout Washington, DC. Thanks to Philip Morris, London was the world's first retail center for cigarettes.
By now, all reputable, medically-interested entities regarded tobacco as a poison. The American Civil War introduced many American northerners to the "sweet bright" tobacco common in the South, produced with specialized smoking and curing methods. A Federal tax on tobacco generated three million dollars for the war.
America's first cigarette factory opened in 1864, vamping the exoticism of Turkish cigarettes to New Yorkers. Cigarettes wouldn't become widely popular in America until World War I, when they were included with war rations and marketed as "the soldier's smoke." Prior to this, chewing tobacco was marketed as a cowboy's comfort. The story of tobacco in America is, more than with most commodities, one of marketing. Philip Morris sold Marlboros to women by claiming they were Mild as May.
The next two decades can be characterized by a kind of crabs-in-a-bucket grab for market share in America between Philip Morris, American Tobacco Company, and Camel. Smoking rates among teenaged girls tripled between 1925 and 1935. World War II saw another soldier-borne explosion in cigarette consumption. The years hence can be characterized by the growing sophistication of tobacco marketing and production in the face of accumulating, increasingly grisly medical evidence. P. Lorillard's "micronite" filter for his Kent brand cigarettes, sold in the 1950s, contained asbestos.
The 1964 American Surgeon General's report on smoking and health provided governments the impetus to regulate tobacco marketing and sales. A "non-tobacco cigarette" marketed four years later by Bravo failed comically, being made mostly of lettuce. By this time, TV ads for tobacco were banned in England. The United States would ban televised cigarette ads in 1971.
Tobacco companies started to diversify their holdings in the 1980s, beset by class-action lawsuits and hideous publicity. Philip Morris bought General Foods and Kraft, while R. Reynolds bought Nabisco. RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company became RJ Reynolds Industries; American Tobacco Company became American Brands, Inc.
Concurrently, all tobacco companies sold more aggressively in the developing world, particularly in Asia.
Encyclopedia Britiannica. "tobacco."
Louie's Plant Nursery. "Tobacco plant."
Gene Borio. "The Tobacco Timeline."
Boston University Medical Center. "The History of Tobacco."
Cancer Council, New South Wales. "A brief history of smoking."