Tobacco in History

The tobacco plant originates in the Americas. The Aztecs smoked hollow reeds, or cane tubes, stuffed with tobacco leaves. Central and North American natives smoked long thick bundles of leaves, wrapped in palm leaves, or dried corn-maize husks. The word "cigar" is probably derived from from the Mayan word for smoking - "si'kar". When Christopher Columbus reached the continent, he found the herb used for medicinal purposes by the American Indians. It was for this reason that tobacco was introduced to Europe.

Tobacco reached France and Spain in the 1550's, and was first brought to Britain by Sir Walter Raliegh in 1565. Portuguese and Spanish sailors took it all over the world. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centurys, tobacco culture spread through South America, the Caribbean, and then to the North American colonys.

For many years, tobacco smoking, or "drinking", as it was known, was the preserve of the wealthy. In Spain, cigars were a status symbol, for consumption only by the idle rich. It was common practice by Spanish beggars to rescue discarded cigar butts, and roll them into "cigarillos", or "little cigars", making the first prototype cigarettes.

One of the first prominent anti-smokers was the British King James I. He described it as "a stinking, loathsome thing", and tried to limit tobacco supplies by raising excise duties, thereby inadvertantly encouraging a huge black market. He quickly changed his tune when he realised what a money-spinner the new drug could be - within a few years taxes were lowered, and the British colony of Virginia was encouraged to grow the crop for export.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centurys, tobacco was mainly smoked in pipes, or taken in its powdered form as snuff, or in little bricks to chew. Snuff was very popular in Europe, where decorative snuff-boxes became the ultimate accessory, given as gifts, or worn as jewellery. Chewing tobacco was popular with the American pioneers, where it was seen as a reaction against the European practices of pipe-smoking and snuff-taking. At about the same time, the Spanish cigarillos were gaining a certain respectability, and their use spread to Italy and France. British and French troops smoked them in the Napoleonic Wars, where the French servicemen at last gave them their modern title - cigarettes.

The first machine for manufacturing cigarettes was patented in 1880. But it was not until the twentieth century that cigarette-smoking really caught on. By this time, improvements in cultivation and processing had reduced the acid content in tobacco, making cigarette-smoking a whole lot easier on the throat. On the other hand, reports of the links between smoking and cancer were already coming to light.

Until World War I, cigarettes had been percieved as effeminate by men, and coarse and unrefined by women. Smoking in the trenches changed that, creating a whole new generation of male addicts, and in the decade that followed, the tobacco industry turned its attention to the other side of the market.

The War had gone some way to emancipating women, but at this time, smoking was still not something a respectable girl would do. Cigarettes were thus marketed to women in a number of ways. One Lucky Strikes slogan played on the female preoccupation with weight: "Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet!" Another had a famous soprano declaring them harmless: "I protect my Precious Voice with Lucky Strikes." The most famous publicity stunt of all was masterminded by American Tobacco's PR genius Edward Bernays. He arranged for a group of attractive debutantes to join New York's Easter Parade, each waving a lit cigarette, and proclaiming it a "torch of liberty".

The industry's aggressive marketing continued, creating an image of cigarettes synonymous with youth, vitality and freedom, when in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. This came to an abrupt end in 1950, when the link between smoking and lung cancer was finally verified.

Ever since then, the industry has survived, and even thrived, in the face of negative publicity. The public are bombarded with conflicting signals from the medical community and the marketing men. The restrictions on advertising are circumvented by the placement of a cigarette machine in every bar in every town in the developed world. If the trend is towards quitting in the prohibitive markets of the First World, the corporations are quickly moving into new, unregulated territory in the Third. Whether we like it or not, they'll carry on selling.

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