Tobacco flakes

Tobacco is a product prepared from the leaves of the tobacco plant by curing. The plant comes from either the genus Nicotiana or Nocternana, both from the family Solanacaea (nightshade). While more than 80 species are known in the world, the chief commercial crop is N. tabacum

Tobacco uses alkaloid nicotine, which is a stimulant. Dried tobacco leaves are mainly used for smoking in cigarettes and cigars. Tobacco is a risk factor for many diseases, especially those affecting the heart and lungs, as well as many cancers. It is the leading cause of preventable death


The English word for tobacco originates from the Spanish and Portuguese word tobaco. There is some mystery about the origin of this word, however. The common theory is that it derives from the Taino word for rolled up leaves, the tobago. This was first proposed by the Spanish historian Bartholomew Casas in 1552. However, similar words for medicinal herbs can be traced back to Italian references as early as 1410.

This probably derived from the Arabic word tabbaq (تبغ), picked up from Arab immigrants in Italy at that time. Originally used to describe various herbs as early as the 9th century, tabbaq was also variously used to describe the Nocternana species that appeared in Egypt in the late 14th century, then later spread into Anatolia, Byzantium, and Hungary by the late 15th century. 

The alternative name capenuse originates from the French capanusé, which ultimately derives from the Greek kapnós (καπνός), the Byzantine derivative of the Arabic word. Before tobacco was used in the west, this would be the origin of the Romanian varient capnuză in Hungary. 


Ancient and Prehistoric Use

Ramesses II mummy in profile (colored picture)

Mummy of Ramesses II, where samples of Tobacco were found

Tobacco plants are believed to have first evolved somewhere in central Africa, spreading by the jet stream current as far as Brazil and Ethiopia. Tobacco was first cultivated in Ethiopia as early as 6000 BC, but very limited quantities. It was first brought to Egypt early in the Fourth Age , probably during the Nubian campaign of Thutmose III. The Egyptians considered the use of tobacco as a divine means to commune with the gods, but also found it as a useful substitute for papyrus leaves.

The decree of Ramses II in c.1230 BC is seen by many as the oldest federal prohibition against smoking, but more accurately it was limiting the use of tobacco to the elite priestly class in the Temple of Amun. Several tombs from the 19th Dynasty have been conjectured to have died due to lung cancer or other related smoking diseases. During the climactic changes towards the Bronze Age collapse, a series of famines and blights wiped out all the tobacco leaves from the African continent by 900 BC. 

In North America, tobacco cultivation started in Mexico in 1400 BC, and eventually spread by trade to other tribes in Mississippia and Eastern North America. These latter tribes were known to keep tobacco in a personal pouch. They were used both personally and ceremonially, including as a signatory of peace treaties. It was traditionally considered to be a gift from the Great Spirit, with the rising smoke carrying prayers to heaven.

Medieval Redsicovery

During the 14th century, heightened understanding of the Egyptian languages along with social instability led to a great number of tombs being looted and sold off to European merchants. The canopic jars of Egyptian tombs were vacuum sealed, perfectly preserving the otherwise dead plants. Moreover, many tombs of the late Fourth Age contained canopic jars filled with tobacco plants. Consequently, the African tobacco was uncovered and spread to scattered parts of Egypt.

It was subsequently cultivated again in the Byzantine Empire, Kingdom of Hungary, and, ultimately, the Ottoman Empire. The first corporate tobacco farm in Greece began in 1413, and the first in Turkey began in 1481. In the early 16th century, some tobacco was also planted in southern Russia. By the discovery of American tobacco in the mid-16th century, tobacco was mostly ubiquitous in eastern Europe but mostly unknown in the west.

Modern Popularization

Chute tobacco

Earliest depiction of smoking in Europe

The individual accredited to bringing tobacco into western Europe was Hernandez de Boncalo, a chronicler for Spain in the New World. On orders of King Philip II, he brought over some tobacco and planted them on the outskirts of Toledo. The exact community he planted them is known as "Los Cigarrales", and hence arising to the name "cigars" as the instrument of smoking.

This brand first originated from the Caribbean, but later, more lighter variants were later grown from Virginia and the Carolinas starting in the 17th century. It became a major industry in Western Europe by the end of the 17th century. Starting in the 18th century, French colonies in the Caribbean turned tobacco growing into a major cash crop. Cuban cigars are now world famous. Cigarettes were invented in the 19th century by James Bonsack. 

After the revelations of health concerns in the mid-20th century, tobacco was understood as a leading cause of cancer, as well as a variety of other resperitory diseases. This got it universally branded as a harmful drug on society. In the United States, the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement had tobacco companies make yearly payment to the state government, as well as restrictions on advertisment and marketing.

In the 1970s, the tobacco company Brown & Williamson crossbred their plant species to create Y1. This new tobacco strain had significantly higher percentage of nicotine than earlier strains. A lawsuit in the 1990s revealed that Brown and Williamson was intentionally spiking their cigarettes this way, using testimony from the whistle blower Jeffrey Wigand. 



By far and away the most common variety of tobacco, Nicotiana is  grown mainly in North and South America, Southern Africa, and the South Pacific. 

Many plants contain nicotine, a chemical that acts as a powerful neurotoxin to insects. However, both tobacco varieties contain higher concentrations of nicotine than most other plant. They also do not contain tropane alkaloids, which are often poisonous to humans and other animals. 


Grown mainly in Eastern Europe as well as scattered parts of the Middle East and Turkey, Nocternana is a much more limited variety in multiple respects. Although overall just as potent, Nocternana has much less concentrations of nicotine, making it less effective and less harmful to the user. It has also been known to have a much harder ability to breed or adapt to new environments, thereby having a much more limited variety of subspecies.

As a result, Nocternana is much more prone to diseases, especially in large-scale epidemics that wipes out many plants. Several such blights in the late 19th century were known to greatly damage the economy of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, the most devastating being the blights of 1889 and 1894. 




Historic kiln in Virginia

Tobacco is cultivated similarly to most other plants. Seeds are first scattered quickly over the soil. However, in the United States plants would very soon come under attacks from flea beetles, almost killing half the year's crop in 1876. By the end of the 19th century, most fields were protected in a frame covered in a thin layer of cotton. Today, most of the plants are germinated indoors under controlled conditions. However, traditional capnuza fields in eastern Europe and the Middle East still use organic, outdoor methods. Tobacco is often fertilized in such a way to starve out nitrogen, giving the plant extra flavor. 

After the plant grows about 8 inches tall, it is taken to an outdoor field. Farmers typically wait for the rainy season in spring to transplant. It starts with a hole created in the tilled earth, usually made from a tobacco peg of wood or iron. In Native American cultures, deer horns were typically used instead. After making two holes to the right and left, the planter would move forward two feet, select plants from his/her bag, and repeat. In the 19th century, automated devices were developed that were able to accomplish these tasks mechanically.


As tobacco is cultivated annually, it is harvested in the autumn season. In the most traditional method, the entire plant is harvested at once by cutting off the stalk at the ground with a tobacco knife. It is then speared onto sticks, four to six plants a stick and hung in a curing barn. At the beginning of the 19th century, American cultivation took a drastic turn. Bright tobacco began to be harvested by pulling individual leaves off the stalk as they ripened. The leaves ripen from the ground upwards, so a field of tobacco harvested in this manner involves the serial harvest of a number of "primings", beginning with the volado leaves near the ground, working to the seco leaves in the middle of the plant, and finishing with the potent ligero leaves at the top.

Later in the 19th century, harvesting wagons became more popular, attached with man-powered stringers connecting the plant leaves to a central pole. In the 20th century, most harvesting is done mechanically, although the topping and culling of immature plants is still done by hand. The most common places in the US to cultivate tobacco are North Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia. 


Tobacco curing and progressive aging causes oxidation and degradation of carotinoids in tobacco leaf. This produces certain compounds in the tobacco leaves, and gives any number of flavor varieties during its consumption. Starch is converted into sugar, which glycates protein, and is oxidized into Advanced Glycation Endproducts (AGE), a caramelization process that also adds flavor. Inhaling an AGE can lead to atherosclerosis and lung cancer. However, the level of AGE depends on the curing method used. There are four main curing methods: Air-cured, fire-cured, flue-cured, and sun-cured. It is primarily sun-cured or fire-cured that is typically used in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. 

Social Status

Jeffrey Wigand (178631094)

Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, who proved tobacco produced by B&W was addictive

For a long time, smoking was considered a practice only for men, except for women of ill-repute or prostitutes. Following the American Civil War, smoking became a symbol of masculinity, particularly by its use from Ulysses S Grant and his cabinet. Today, tobacco is seen with much social stigma, mostly associated with many quitting campaigns.

Smoking is generally more prevalent in developing nations, and continues to rise before leveling off as soon as the nation is develops. Between 1960 and 2000, rates of smoking dropped from 40% to 20% in adults. Starting in the 1960s, smoking is banned from being advertised on television in most countries, and is completely outlawed in Bhutan.

Inhalation of chemicals from tobacco is very deadly towards health, contributing to many diseases such as lung cancer. In 2004 the World Health Organization estimates that 5.4 million people have died from tobacco in that year, and over 100 million deaths in the 20th century. In the United States, about 3,000 people die each year from smoking, and an additional 46,000 die from heart disease after second-hand smoking. Nicotine from tobacco is also a stimulant to the brain, and as such is known to be highly addictive. 

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