ONE. The Basics

What is tobacco?

Tobacco is a plant that was domesticated, cultivated, and used by Native Americans for at least the past 5000 years, long before Columbus arrived in America. It is believed that the plant originated from South America and its cultivation spread northward during prehistoric times. Tobacco may even be the first domesticated plant in the Americas, as it was more widely cultivated by Native Americans than maize at the time the first Europeans arrived. Tobacco is the fastest spreading plant in human history. From the Americas, the Spanish conquistadors and early European explorers carried it to Europe where its cultivation rapidly spread to Asia.

Numerous species are native to South America, Mexico, and the West Indies. The plant grows 4 to 6 feet high and bears pink flowers. It has huge leaves. The tobacco plant, Nicotiana tabacum, was named after Jean Nicot, the French ambassador to Portugal who first brought the plant back from Brazil in 1560. A number of tobacco species grow naturally in the Americas, all belonging to the genus Nicotiana of the Solanacease family. Products manufactured from the leaf are used in cigars, cigarettes, snuff, pipes, and chewing tobacco. The chief commercial species is N. tabacum, which is native to tropical America. N. rustica was grown in Virginia and the Carolinas during the Colonial era. Although today the number of tobacco farms is declining, it remains the chief crop in the Mid-Atlantic, Southeastern states, and some of the Southern states, including Kentucky and Tennessee. Many American farmers have exchanged their tobacco crops for other products. Today, vineyards are developing all over North Carolina to replace the old tobacco farms. N. rustica is also grown in Turkey, Russia, and other parts of the Ottoman Empire, and is known as Turkish Tobacco.

Tobacco is the fastest spreading plant in human history.

Tobacco requires a warm climate and rich, well-drained soil. The leaves are picked as they mature and are harvested together with the stalk. After harvesting, the tobacco leaves are cured, fermented, and aged to develop an aroma and to reduce the harsh taste. There are several methods of curing tobacco leaves. Fire curing involves drying the leaves in smoke. Air curing involves hanging the leaves to dry in a well-ventilated structure. Another form of curing is when the leaves are dried by radiant heat from flues or pipes connected to a furnace.

Once the leaves are cured, the tobacco leaves are graded, bunched, and stacked into piles, and then put in closed containers for fermentation and aging. Most commercial tobacco is a blend of different types of tobacco. Other ingredients such as maple sugar and other sugars are then added for taste.

Why do people use tobacco?

Tobacco is clearly valued for its psychoactive[1] effects. This means that it has several actions on the mind that depend upon the dose used. It can be used to stimulate the mind, relieve anxiety, or create visions or hallucinations. All of these properties can be pleasurable. In many Native American tribes, tobacco was traditionally used for religious or shamanistic purposes. Traditionally, tobacco was reserved primarily for shamans and priests because of its hallucinogenic properties. Tobacco was thought to allow the individual a conduit to the visions of the future, to the afterlife, God, or to a greater spiritual plain. All parts of the plant were used for different medicinal purposes; tobacco was used in agriculture to deter insects and other plant diseases, and it was a source of currency (see Question 4). Many tribes use tobacco to this day in their ceremonies and consider it one of the most important of their sacred herbs.

During the Colonial era, tobacco was used as a commodity for bartering, and it was exported to Europe in exchange for manufactured products. Snuff and chewing tobacco were initially more popular among men before the Civil War. Starting with World War I, cigarettes became popular among Americans (see Question 3). Snuff, chewing tobacco, cigars, pipes, and cigarettes are all used for pleasure. Nicotine, the major psychoactive ingredient of tobacco, can act as both a stimulant to enhancing the ability to think clearly and improve alertness, and as a relaxant to relieve anxiety, so that the smoker "feels good." (Question 83 reviews nicotine's possible health benefits.)

  • [1] A drug or chemical substance that acts on the brain to alter mood, behavior, perception, or consciousness. Abuse of some of these substances may cause addiction.
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