Tobacco plant and tobacco leaf from the Deli plantations in Sumatra, 1905. Source: Wikipedia.

I am not a fan of tobacco. Whether it’s cigarettes or cigars, it always makes me coughing.

Lots of people are in similar situation like me. Research papers show that smoking is not good for the health, even second-hand or “third-hand” smokes are harmful. Therefore, smoking in public is prohibited in many countries including Taiwan.

This certain plant takes away 7 million lives per year. And yet selling it is completely legal! In 2016, around 9.28 million acres of land is used to grow tobacco globally, and about 1.125 billion people smoke it every day (among them there are 25 million under age of 15). Those who love it have a saying that goes: “A smoke after a meal makes me as happy as a God”, and those who dislike it avoid it whenever a smoker is near.

Tobacco is originated in America, Australia, west Africa and south Oceania. The earliest smokers are the Mayans, wrapping tobacco in corn husks or palm leaves in 1,500 BC. Pipe was also invented during that time, along with crushing tobacco into powder and snuff. Tobacco is a sacred plant for them, they even have El Fumador, which is the god of tobacco. The people of the Inca Empire had the habit of chewing tobacco with coca leaves, and later turned to chewing coca leaves only. Native Americans use tobacco on war, hunting, peace talks, or sacred rituals. In Huron people’s legend said tobacco was brought by God to alleviate their distress during a great famine, along with maize and potatoes.

There are 67 species of tobacco, among them about 8 species of tobacco that are used for smoking and chewing. The most common are Nicotiana rustica and Nicotiana tabacum. Among them, pink flower species (N. tabacum) is the most widely cultivated species in the world; yellow flower (N. rustica) species are currently only used to process hookah.

The first European encountered tobacco is Christopher Columbus (1451-1506). He recorded on his logbook on 12 October 1492, saying “the indigenous people ‘brought fruit, wooden spears, and certain dried leaves which gave off a distinct fragrance’” (An Empire of Plants). However, he threw those leaves overboard. The value of tobacco was recognized later when two of his sailors, Rodriguo de Jerez and Luis de Torres, made further contact with the American Indians. Rodriguo became addicted and brought it back to Europe. When he started smoking in public, people got scared and he was imprisoned for several years. By the time he was released, smoking had become a national habit already.

After Columbus bringing it to other European countries, tobacco quickly sweeping Europe off its feet. At first, they treated tobacco as a kind of herbal medicine of the indigenous peoples, until Materia Medica, a pharmacy book from Spain, was translated into English in 1577, mentioning the medical effects of tobacco; thus causing tobacco’s medicinal properties to be valued, at one point claiming to be able to cure any disease. During the Great Plague of London from 1665 to 1666, there were rumors that none of the employees of tobacco shops caught the disease, sweeping the city up a tobacco frenzy, even boys at Eton were also forced to smoke a pipe every morning.

And if it wasn’t for tobacco, America may have appeared on the world map a lot later than it had. During the late 16th century, the Great Britain had been made several unsuccessful attempts trying to colonize the North American mainland. In 1585 and 1587, Roanoke Island; in 1591 there went another attempt. In 1606 they built the Jamestown settlement, lost most of the colonists by 1609. Luckily in 1612 John Rolfe (1585-1622) introduced the sweeter species of tobacco (N. tabacum) from Trinidad which became a huge success, the species highly popular among Europeans, salvaging the colony. It is rumored that Thanksgiving Day — a unique holiday in the United States — was first held to celebrate the harvest of tobacco, the earliest settlers even using tobacco as currency and ‘Tobacco Notes’ were official currency in Virginia for 200 years. And Mr. Rolfe is in fact the husband of Pocahontas (1596-1617) in the Disney movie “Pocahontas”. According to historical records, Pocahontas converted to Christianity in order to marry Rolfe. Sadly, shortly after they returned to London in 1616, Pocahontas was probably infected with chickenpox, passing away in 1617. Their son, Tom, went back to America later, leaving many descendants in the New World.

The successful cultivation also signaled the start of slavery in mainland America. There are forests to be cleared, tobacco seedlings to be planted, mature leaves to be picked and cured, and the apical buds to be removed so the growth would be concentrated on the leaves. They tried to use indentured labor but it just simply cannot suffice. According to John Rolfe’s records, the first twenty slaves arrived by 1619. More than 100,000 were brought from Africa before 1770, mostly by the notorious ‘triangular’ trade.

Looking back from now, it is not right to enslave other people; however people in that time persuaded themselves that people from Africa are descendants from Canaan, who received “The curse of Ham” from Noah, so it is OK to enslave them.

Gradually some colonists got to know more about those slaves and some of the slaves even baptized, becoming Christians. However, the Virginian Assembly passed laws prohibiting slaves become free people whether they are Christians or not. Laws also prevented the more ‘liberal’ slave owners to let their slaves owning horses and helding meetings.

As the North American colonial economy gets better and better, the Great Britain tried to get more and more from the colony. Navigation Act (1651) prohibited transportation using non-English-own ships and forbade any production and trade in Virginia that will reduce English profits. This caused much resentment from the colonists. Relationships deteriorated further after the imposition of the Sugar Act in 1764, the American Stamp Act of 1765, and the Tea Act of 1767. Finally the American War of Independence was declared in 1775 and Britain recognized America’s independence in 1783.

Tobacco was very expensive initially, therefore smoking became a fashionable thing among the elites. Although cigar was also invented by the American Indians, it did not become popular until French Revolution in Europe. Cigarettes was not invented until 1832 in the Turkish war against Egypt. An Egyptian gunner found a way to increase the power of an artillery by wrapping gun powder in paper, and so was rewarded with tobacco; unfortunately, his pipe was broken. He wrapped the tobacco in paper, and that was how cigarettes came into being. Originally, cigarettes were wrapped by hand, so it was a luxury item too. But that changed when an American tobacco merchant James Buchanan Duke (1856-1925) acquired a license to use the first automated cigarette making machine invented by James Albert Bonsack in 1885, resulting in the prices of cigarettes to drop drastically, making cigarettes become the most widespread tobacco product worldwide. In 1924, he donated 40 million US dollars (equivalent to 584 million in 2018) to set up a fund and donated part of it to the Trinity College. To thank him, Trinity College was renamed Duke University.

The main psychoactive ingredient in tobacco, nicotine, was isolated in 1828. However, the direct link between tobacco smoking and lung cancer wasn’t established until 1950.

The fact that nicotine is addicting was under wraps by tobacco companies until a former employee of Brown & Williamson Co., Jeffery Wigand, exposed the facts to the public on CBS news program 60 Minutes, February 4th 1996. People learned that not only the tobacco companies knew nicotine is addictive, they also blend in chemicals like ammonia so the effect of nicotine will become stronger.

Nowadays, we all know that smoking has a negative impact on our health, causing lung cancer, throat cancer, oral cancer, so on and so forth, but because it takes approximately 20 years for cancer to form, in the beginning no one knew it could be so bad! Seeing as smoking is not only harmful to active smokers but also those who inhale second-hand smoke, Taiwan passed a legislation in 2007, put into effect on January 11th, 2009, banning smoking in indoor public spaces or workplaces with more than three people present, or risk being fined at least 2,000 NTD!

Although great poet Li Bai wrote about tobacco in his poems, it is probably the Age of Discovery brought tobacco to China. Taiwan started growing tobacco during the late Ming or the early Qing dynasty. “Native” varieties were introduced and cultivated by the indigenous people from Southeast Asia and Chinese immigrants brought their varieties from mainland. After Japan took over the island, they introduced several different varieties to Taiwan. At some point Japanese tried to control the production and distribution of tobacco, but proven to be unsuccessful. They tried to buy all of the tobacco from the indigenous people, but it just encouraged them to grow more. After World War II, the Taiwan keep growing tobacco for quite some time. Hualien, Taichung, Chiayi’s Zhongpu, and Kaohsiung’s Meinong of Taiwan, respectively, have all grown tobacco. However, due to the cheap price and stable quality of imported tobacco, domestic tobacco cultivation gradually saw its end in 2017.

Although the one-time hero seems to become villain nowadays, tobacco does have contribution on science. Before Arabidopsis was discovered, tobacco is one of the most popular model plants for research. The discovery of photoperiodicity was initiated on a mutant variety of tobacco — Maryland Mammoth. This variety does not bolt in summer as the wild-type, so the scientists tried to promote its cultivation. However, it did not bolt until the end of summer, causing trouble of seed-collecting for farmers in north. In order to make it bolt, they discovered plants are sensitive to the length day (which turned out to be the continuous length of night). Eventually the research carried on and lead to the discovery of one of plant’s photoreceptor — phytochromes.



黑手老師、科普作者、資深書蟲 Educator, popular science writer and bookworm.

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葉綠舒 Susan Yeh

黑手老師、科普作者、資深書蟲 Educator, popular science writer and bookworm.