The history of the tobacco plant is as dramatic and riveting as any soap opera. From humble beginnings, this simple plant rose to sacred reverence before becoming a pawn for governments to use and abuse. Here are three interesting facts about smoking that cover tobacco’s meteoric rise and tumultuous existence.
1. Smoking is an Ancient Tradition
Native to Central and South America, people have been smoking tobacco for over 12,300 years. It comes from the leaves of the Nicotiana plant, which is a member of the nightshade family. Other famous nightshades include:
- Bell and Chili Peppers
- Goji Berries
The indigenous people of Mesoamerica cherished and revered tobacco for its medicinal properties. It was considered a prized possession that was bartered and sold in exchange for precious metals and gemstones. It was bestowed upon visiting dignitaries, emperors, and kings as tribute and gifts.
Nowadays, cigarettes and vape pens can easily be bought from an online smoke shop, but to the ancient Mayans and Aztecs, the smoking of tobacco was strictly reserved for sacred or religious ceremonies. It was mixed with other psychoactive herbs to induce trance-like states for priests and shamans.
Originally tobacco was smoked through clay or wooden pipes. However, around the 9th century, reeds started to be used as smoking tubes which eventually led to the invention of the cigar. Other plants, such as maize, were also used as cigarette wrappers. It wasn’t until the 17th century that paper became the standard wrap for cigarettes.
2. Christopher Columbus Introduced Tobacco to Europe
In 1492 Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas. He was greeted by the native people and given many gifts upon his arrival. Among the items gifted were dried tobacco leaves, which he proceeded to throw overboard due to their noxious smell.
It wasn’t until two of Columbus’s men witnessed the native islanders of Cuba smoking the dried tobacco leaves that he understood the plant’s importance. Columbus presented tobacco leaves to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain on his return, but they were actually disappointed as he had been sent to find spices.
Rodrigo de Jerez, one of the sailors to first witness smoking, became such an ardent smoker that when he returned to Spain, his neighbors were so terrified by the plumes of smoke rising from his nose and mouth that they accused him of being possessed by the devil. Jerez was arrested by the Spanish Inquisition and imprisoned for years as a result.
In Spain and Portugal, smoking tobacco slowly started to rise in popularity as more and more sailors became enamored with it and brought the tradition back to Europe with them. However, it took a French diplomat named Jean Nicot de Villemain, where the modern name Nicotiana comes from, to make tobacco truly popular.
He studied the medicinal use of the tobacco plant and recommended that the French Queen, Catherine de Medici, snort the ground leaves to treat her constant migraines. Similar to how cannabis has gone from villain to hero with the discovery of the medicinal benefits of CBD. After that, tobacco snuff and smoking tobacco in pipes became extremely fashionable throughout the royal courts of Europe.
3. World War I Made Smoking Cigarettes Popular
At the turn of the 20th century, pipes, cigars, and chewing tobacco were the most popular ways to consume the product throughout most of the world. Many North Americans and Europeans looked down on the smoking of cigarettes with disdain. It was thought to be too crass and something only done by immigrants and the lower classes.
All of that changed with the outbreak of WWI. The governments of Europe and America began including cigarettes in soldiers’ rations. They did so for several reasons:
- Nicotine is classified as a stimulant.
- It helps the brain become more alert, clearer and makes it easier to focus.
- It also triggers the kidneys to release adrenaline into the bloodstream while calming the nerves.
These are all important elements that soldiers need to help them survive and maintain their courage. In South East Asia, the kratom plant is used to help with focus and mental clarity instead of tobacco.
The US government also hoped that cigarettes would deter the soldiers from developing worse habits that were more detrimental to their health, such as alcohol and opioid addictions and sexually transmitted infections.
Once the war ended and the soldiers returned home, smoking cigarettes emerged as the most popular method. By the end of WW2, 80% of American men between the ages of 16 and 64 consumed tobacco, predominantly in the form of cigarettes.
From sacred relic to cash crop and healer, tobacco has gone through many different transformations. Despite its ups and downs, none can deny that this humble plant has had an enormous impact on the history of the world.