Tobacco has a long and variable history; despite it’s use in rituals, it is so potent it can kill through skin contact alone but is also so addictive it fuelled a war against Native Americans. Our mixed perspective on tobacco only increases when we turn to An Empire of Plants by Toby and Will Musgrave:
“In medical opinion tobacco has gone from hero to villain, from miracle wonder to a tool of the devil. Some of the darker aspects of tobacco include its links to smuggling, piracy, the development of the slave trade”
In terms of the plant’s qualities, it contains the alkaloid nicotine that wards off insects however, it is also addictive for humans as I’m sure you know. It is the addictiveness that has led to the tobacco plant’s success with it now being grown en masse. I do think it’s important to note that whilst nicotine is a powerful neurotoxin, much of it is destroyed when burnt. This means cigarettes are comparably safe when compared to eating the leaves, which is exceptionally harmful.
Looking back in terms of social and historical importance, the cultivation of Nicotiana goes back as far back as 5000 BC and human use for smoking, dating back at least as far as the first century BC when it was used by the Mayan people for smoking in sacred and religious ceremonies. It’s use then spread through neighbouring tribes including use by Native American Shamans in religious rites and ceremonies such as before a battle, a hunt, an expedition or peace talks. It was also part of a sacred ritual that provided a link between the human and the divine worlds. Protection from approaching storms could be acquired through and offering of tobacco, it was left on graves as offerings for ancestors and tobacco also sealed peace treaties. For the latter, there could be a special pipe known as a peace pipe and those who were in disagreement would hold the pipe between them and would be encouraged to smoke together.
The spirits were said to be a fan of tobacco but couldn’t get it for themselves, instead only being able to get it through the Native Americans through smoke and offerings. The Native Americans in turn had received the tobacco as a gift with the giver varying, for example coming via the Kinkajou, the animal which led me to the wonderous rabbit hole of tobacco.
In more recent Native American literature, Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about leaving a gift of tobacco before tapping a maple tree for syrup and how the offering is an expression of gratitude. She does not (as a botanist) assume that the plant recognises the offering, but in offering it, she is reminded of the debt she owes to the plant. She also writes about how “when the Skywoman buried her beloved daughter in the earth, the plants that grew are special gifts to the people sprung from her body”. Of most relevance is the gift of tobacco that grew from her head. But other gifts include sweetgrass, strawberries, corn, squash and beans.
“With their tobacco and their thanks, our people say to the sweetgrass “I need you”.” – Robin Wall Kimmerer
Another contemporary writer, Linda Hogan, writes about tobacco ties which are squares of cotton that hold tobacco and are tied with twine and strung together. They are called prayer ties and each tie has a prayer, intention or gratitude held within it. Anyone coming into contact with the prayer tie is blessed by the prayer or intention.
Heading back to precolonial times, the Native Americans also used tobacci for curing a number of ailments including asthma and depression. The potential for healing would later be “discovered” in Europe.
So, how did Europeans discover tobacco? Well, it’s important to note that history depends on the lens that views it firstly, so the term discover comes with a heavily colonialist connotation and I want to note I am writing this as someone who has access to historical information in Britian. This means my version will come with the bias of the materials I have access to.
That out the way. It is believed that in 1492, Christopher Columbus first came across tobacco when the leaves were gifted to him by the Native Americans. As Columbus and other Europeans started to take up space in North America, smoking tobacco played a key role in the negotiations. Whilst initially this strange leaf based gift was rejected, within a century tobacco had migrated to India, Japan, Africa, China, Europe and the Middle East.
In the 1500s, Europe started trying to grow tobacco in Central American and by the mid 16th century, Sir John Hawkins took the questionable honour of being the first person to introduce tobacco to England. He was also the first English slave trader… Giving us a hint about the direction the tobacco trade is headed…
The first known European to smoke tobacco was Rodriguo de Jerez who returned to Spain with it, lit up in public, frightening his neighbours as smoke came out of his nose and mouth. So terrified was the community that he was imprisoned by the holy inquisitors. In spite of this brutal introduction, Spain would go on to lead on exploring tobacco as a possible medical resource; it shortly became a miracle cure able to help with multiple illnesses and ailments including toothache, worms, halitosis, lockjaw, coughs and cancers.
Over in England, Sir Walter Raleigh popularised smoking at court, not always smoothly; he was once soaked with beer by a servant who, upon seeing his master smoking, thought he was on fire and so helpfully put it out!
If we consider further supposed healing properties of tobacco at the time, we find it was thought to ward off the plague, a belief so strong that boys at Eton were forced to smoke a pipe every morning or be flogged.
As with many things that seem to take focus away from religion, tobacco would go on to be banned. Tobacco shops had begun opening in 1610s and by a decade later, the pope had banned use of tobacco in holy places. The reasoning being that snuff was related to sneezing which in turn was related to sexual pleasures.
As all of this was going on, it was discovered that tobacco doesn’t grow well in Europe and so England, being the colonising money makers they were (are?), they started to look for places they could grow it. The American colonies were, in their minds, an excellent place to grow a crop that had established demand. In fact, tobacco plantations were so successful that they brought in substantial customs revenue to Britain and as crops increased, so did the need for people to work in the fields; that is to say slaves.
Tobacco and slavery seem to have gone hand in hand once Britain became involved… With Virginia passing various racial laws and in 1705, legalising lifelong slavery:
“all servants imported and brought into this country, by sea or land, who were not Christians in their native country… shall be… slaves, and as such be here bought and sold notwithstanding a conversion to Christianity afterwards.”
As an aside, Christianity has had a big role to play in suppressing sexualities and gender identities around the world as colonialisation happened, although that’s a topic for another day.
Of course, tobacco had to be moved from where it was grown to the customers:
“The produce of the colonies, both legal and illegal, had to be conveyed in ships between colony and mother country, and as the colonies grew more prosperous there grew a demand for European furniture and other luxuries. This trade also encouraged the development of unlawful industries, including smuggling and privacy… So important was the tobacco trade that, even when Britain was at war with the French in the mid-18th Century, a special treaty was concluded to allow the lucrative business to continue.” – An Empire of Plants
As that quote illustrates, the growth and trade of tobacco was highly valuable and in Britain, it would allow urban and industrial development. By the 1720s, Glasgow for example, was handing over half of all the American tobacco brought into Britain.
Back in the states, Virginia settlers thought of tobacco leaf as ‘as good as gold’ and it was used as a local currency; they even paid the passage for their prospective brides in tobacco. This use of tobacco as a currency lasted for 200 years.
Beyond America and Europe, we find Alaskan native tribes who make something called punk ash by mixing tobacco with the ash of a burned mushroom that grows on birch trees. By combining it, the effect is much stronger as ash helps deliver it straight to the brain.
In India, creamy snuff is popular among women and is sold in tubes a bit like toothpaste and similarly contains cloves and spearmint. It was recommended that you brush with it morning, night and any time you’re in a state of despair.
A takeaway from this post is that tobacco has long been seen as healing despite it being harmful to those imbibing it today, and to the many lives affected in the historic and current production processes.
Whilst the history of tobacco isn’t great nor is the more recent story. In fact, tobacco industries have had a horrible habit of targeting marginalised communities.
By 1960, all US states had laws preventing the sale of cigarettes to minors and in 1970, President Nixon banned cigarette adverts on radio and TV despite being a keen pipe smoker himself. Whilst this sounds a positive move, it left tobacco companies in need of new ways of reaching potential customers and that led to some unsavory tactics.
If we zooom forward a few decades, we find a 2016 report from the Truth Initiative that looked at how tobacco has played a unique role in LGBT history as a result of businesses intentionally targeting this community:
“While the stress associated with social stigmas, discrimination and the coming out process, more prevalent alcohol and drug use, and exposure to bars and clubs all play a role in the tobacco use disparity, predatory marketing practices are critical to understanding the truth about tobacco use and the LGBT community.”
Data in 2021 reiterated the higher use of tobacco by LGBT communities, noting that:
“For years the tobacco industry has made efforts to appeal to LGBT consumers through things like targeted advertisements in LGBT press, cigarette giveaways, and free tobacco industry merchandise. Today, the LGBT community is among the hardest hit by tobacco.”
As well as targeting LGBTQ communities, the tobacco industry has also used their predatory marketing practices against black communities. But how did we get to this place?
Many years ago, health warnings about smoking came into mainstream ways of thinking. Fearing for profits, the companies responded by advertising directly to women eg with Virginia Slims which used the slogan “You’ve come a long way baby”. The male law makers responded critically as it was their wives who were being endangered by tobacco which was now known to be unhealthy. Then, with women out of reach, tobacco companies turned to children. This took forms such as Joe Camel using a cartoon character in 1987. Again, this was too much for the family men in charge of law and decision making.
So, to avoid potential legal battles, the tobacco industry turned to communities that law makers didn’t care about; black and LGBTQ people. At the time, both groups were upsetting law makers in their efforts to make society fairer through the civil rights movement and so were seen as an enemy to the state. Following the logic of my enemy’s enemy is my ally, tobacco companies started donating to black groups and sponsoring music events where black people would gather. Benson and Hedges put an advert in a gay magazine and another company targeted a specifically gay neighbourhood. Both companies aligned themselves with LGBTQ and black people to increase profit. As the law makers and government didn’t care as much about these “other” people, laws weren’t put in place to protect them in the way it had been for women and children. This led to higher tobacco use in LGBT and black communities which in turn resulted in increased health inequalities. Alongside this seemingly ally-like behaviour, tobacco companies were still donating to anti-gay lobbies.
As we all knew starting out, tobacco is not a neutral topic but I hope I have been able to provide a varied and nuanced take on such a controversial topic.
An Empire of Plants by Toby and Will Musgrave:
LGBTQ Tobacco Use – Powered by Rainbows https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YhE53feN6KA