Tobacco history: How ‘smoke of the gods’ became big business

cigarette factory
Workers in a local cigarette factory in the early 1970s. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

The tobacco plant grows natively in North and South America and it is believed that the Mayan people were growing the plant as early as 6,000 BC. Tobacco had many different uses in medical and religious practices. It was believed to be a cure-all and was used to dress wounds, relieve toothaches and was a popular pain killer.

Eastern North American tribes believed tobacco to be “the smoke of the gods”, a gift from the Creator and tobacco smoke was seen as carrying one’s thoughts and prayers to the spirits. Tobacco was used in many religious ceremonies or those to seal treaties and agreements. It was also readily welcome as a trade item or medium of exchange.

Tobacco was in common use in the Americas long before European settlers arrived and took the practice to Europe where it became popular.

On October 15, 1492, Christopher Columbus was offered dried tobacco leaves as a gift from the American Indians that he encountered. Soon after sailors brought back tobacco seeds to Europe and the plant was grown all over the continent in record time because Europeans believed it could cure anything from bad breath to cancer!

Following the arrival of Europeans tobacco became one of the primary products fueling colonization, and also a driving factor in the incorporation of African slave labour.


In 1588, a resident of Virginia Thomas Harriet introduced tobacco smoking as a means of getting one’s daily dose of tobacco. During the 1600s tobacco was so popular that it was used as money and considered “as good as gold”.

At the same time some of the harmful effects of tobacco began to be noticed by individuals such as Sir Francis Bacon who in 1610 noted that trying to quit the habit was really hard.

In the Eastern US, gold and silver were very rare which made it difficult for the colonists to trade with Native Americans. The growing of tobacco in the Chesapeake area was essential to solving this problem. Starting in the1620s, tobacco was used as a currency for trade, paying fines, taxes and even marriage licences.

The increased demand for tobacco in Europe fuelled the slave trade. In the colonies land was at a premium because tobacco required vast tracts of land to cultivate.

Tobacco production was also highly labour intensive which created a problem for the traditional practice of indentured European labour. Indentured servants were promised land of various amounts in their contracts which became harder to part with being in direct competition with the demand for tobacco land. It was no longer economically viable to bring in indentured servants.

What the plantation owners wanted was workers who could legally not be paid and would be able to work long hours in the hot sun. The demand and profitability of tobacco led to the shift in the colonies to a slave-based labour force which has shaped life and politics in America and elsewhere including Kenya up to the present day.

Pierre Lorillard established a company in New York City to process tobacco, cigars and snuff in 1760 which still exists today as the oldest tobacco company in America.

During the American Revolutionary War in 1776, tobacco helped finance the revolution by serving as collateral for loans borrowed from France.

In 1847, the famous Philip Morris established a tobacconist shop on Bond Street in London selling hand-rolled Turkish cigarettes while J.E. Ligett (makers of Chesterfield cigarettes) was established in 1849 in St. Louis, Missouri.

Cigarette smoking became popular especially with soldiers returning from Russia and Turkey. Chewing tobacco was also becoming popular with the “cowboys” of the Wild West and the image of tobacco as the choice of mister “tough guy” was catching on in popular culture.

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company was established in 1875 in Winston, North Carolina to produce chewing tobacco. The company would later in 1903 market the famous “Camel” brand of cigarette.

The use of the cigarette exploded during World War I and cigarettes became popularly known as “soldier’s smoke” further enhancing the image of cigarette smoking. However, along with the increasing popularity of the cigarette, there was a small but growing anti-tobacco campaign with some states proposing legislation to ban tobacco as scientific evidence of the harmful effects of tobacco use became widely known. With the generous profits that tobacco was generating for the corporate giants and the massive revenues the governments were collecting in taxes, the anti-tobacco lobbyists did not stand a chance.

During World War II cigarette sales were at an all-time high and free cigarettes were included in a soldiers C-Rations like food! Tobacco companies sent millions of cigarettes to the soldiers for free and by the time the soldiers came home the companies had a steady supply of loyal customers.

By the early 1950s the tobacco industry was in a crisis of cataclysmic proportions. The tobacco companies engaged in elaborate social engineering schemes to counteract the growing body of scientific evidence on the dangers of cigarette smoking.

The industry launched a new strategy to erode, confuse and condemn the very science that now threatened to destroy its prized, highly popular and exclusive product. The use of celebrities to endorse their products glamorized cigarette smoking especially amongst the youth.

In the 1960s the tobacco companies targeted Third World countries, especially in emerging independent African countries where awareness was low and a middle class was growing.

In the 1990s class action lawsuits against “Big Tobacco” were beginning to succeed in America with huge settlements being awarded.

Today smoking is politically incorrect and smoking is banned by law in many public places. All tobacco products carry mandatory health warnings and cigarette advertising is forbidden on all media including in sports where it was once the major player.

Tobacco companies have been forced to diversify into other fields such as food products to stay afloat.

Notwithstanding, Big Tobacco is thriving, profitable and increasing its sales. Annual profits are in excess of $35 billion while Marlboro remains the number one brand worldwide.