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The History of Tobacco and the Trade Industry

Tobacco in the form of snuff, leaf, cigars, chew, pipe tobacco, and factory-made cigarettes is one of the oldest United States industries, and the history of this business has been deeply intertwined with the history of the United States. In addition, the tobacco plant has deep ties with the colonization of the New World and the expansion of international trade.

Who Discovered Tobacco?

Tobacco was discovered 2,000 years ago by the natives of Mesoamerica and South America, and it was later introduced to Europe and the rest of the world. One of the first people to introduce tobacco in Europe was Jean Nicot, whose name gave us the word "nicotine."

Origins of Modern Tobacco Production and Consumption

In the 17th century, commercial tobacco was the driving force of the colonization of the Caribbean and North America. The cash crop required intensive labor for its planting, harvesting, and curing, and this created demand for conscripted labor, first in the form of indentured European workers and later in the form of African slaves.

Tobacco was primarily grown for snuff or for smoking in pipes, and it was mostly grown in Virginia and Maryland. The demand for the crop rapidly grew in England, and by 1628, the Chesapeake region was exporting 370,000 pounds per year, which substantially boosted the economy. The farming of this cash crop rapidly spread to Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, then into the Northeast and the Midwest. By the end of the 18th century, the leading tobacco producers were Cuba, the United States, and Brazil.

Over time, the ways in which people used tobacco shifted. Clay pipes were used by Europeans to smoke tobacco until the 18th century, when snuff became more popular. In the 19th century, cigars and cigarettes became popular in Europe and North America.

Industrialized Tobacco and the Rise of Cigarettes

While much tobacco was grown in the New World, until 1800, Europe was the leading manufacturer of tobacco products. But after the Civil War, tobacco manufacturing took a turn with the introduction of cigarette machines and steam-powered shredding in tobacco processing.

In 1881, James Bonsack revolutionized the cigarette manufacturing industry with the introduction of a new cigarette-making machine that could produce more than 120,000 cigarettes a day. James B. Duke, who owned a cigarette production business, adopted Bonsack's machines. With this advantage coupled with aggressive advertising, Duke soon became the world's leading cigarette manufacturer. Similar changes took place in the cigar industry.

Combined with overall population growth and anti-spitting ordinances that deterred people from chewing tobacco, improvements in manufacturing led to a boom in cigarette consumption from 1870 to 1890. In 1890, Duke formed American Tobacco Company, buying out competitors including R.J. Reynolds and W.T. Blackwell and reorganizing the business into one corporation. In a decade and a half, this business would go on to control 80 percent of the U.S. non-cigar tobacco industry. However, the company would soon face anti-trust litigation and be forced to break up, relinquishing R.J. Reynolds and creating three smaller companies: American Tobacco, P. Lorillard, and Liggett and Myers.

  • Tobacco Packaging and Marketing: For decades, advertising convinced people to smoke, sometimes touting fake health benefits to do so. Today, advocacy groups push to limit tobacco advertising so that it clearly states the health risks of smoking and does not attract underage smokers.
  • Smoking Among Children Linked to Cartoon Camel: Studies in the 1990s showed that Camel cigarettes appealed to children due to their cartoon mascot, Old Joe Camel. Controversy over this marketing campaign helped to fuel lawsuits against tobacco companies.
  • Brightleaf Tobacco and North Carolina's Place in the Tobacco Industry: A slave in North Carolina discovered a new way to cure tobacco leaves in 1839, creating brightleaf tobacco, which was hugely popular with smokers.
  • Tobacco and the Economy: As more people have become aware of the negative health effects of tobacco, tobacco farmers and their communities have struggled to adapt to slackening demand.
  • Dokha and its Use: This type of tobacco, a blend that also includes spices, barks, or dried fruits, is commonly found in the Middle East and has a very high nicotine content, making it very addictive.
  • Ybor City: Cigar Capital of the World: This section of Tampa, Florida, was once one of the top producers of high-quality cigars, outpacing even Havana, Cuba.
  • Tobacco Industry Marketing: The American Lung Association takes an in-depth look at how tobacco companies have encouraged people to use their products.