The story of tobacco

Sir Walter Raleigh brought the first tobacco back to England from Virginia on July 27th, 1586. It was not its first appearance in Europe, because Hernández de Boncalo had brought back tobacco seeds for Spain’s Philip II in 1559, but it was the first in England. It had long been used in the Americas, with evidence that it was grown in Mexico as early as 1400 - 1000 BC. Native Americans grew it and traded it, and famously smoking it ceremonially in a “pipe of peace.”

People enjoyed it because of the nicotine high it gives, and it soon became popular for smoking, chewing or snuffing, and became a major industry. Glasgow merchants who traded in New World tobacco became fabulously rich, and were known as Lords (Lairds) of the plainstaines as they strutted through the streets, resplendent in scarlet cloaks with gold-handled canes.

It was alleged to have health benefits. The astronomer, Thomas Harriot, enjoyed it on a 1585 expedition, saying that it "openeth all the pores and passages of the body" so that the natives’ "bodies are notably preserved in health, and know not many grievous diseases, wherewithal we in England are often times afflicted." King James I and VI was less impressed, describing it in his 1604 “Counterblaste to Tobacco,” as “a pernicious weed.”

Nicotine not only gives its user a buzz, it also acts as a sedative and an aid to learning, mimicking to some extent the action of acetylcholine. War-wounded soldiers on stretchers would often have a lighted cigarette put between their lips to calm them, and many university students found it helped with late-night cramming.

The damagingly adverse effects of tobacco smoke on health were only revealed in a famous 1962 report by the Royal College of Physicians. It has subsequently been shown to be a leading cause of lung cancer, heart disease and other conditions. Health authorities began to take increasingly strident action against it, identifying it as the single most preventable cause of disease.

Despite health warnings on packaging, bans on smoking in pubs and restaurants, and then on smoking indoors in public places, many smokers find it hard to give up because nicotine is undoubtedly addictive. Libertarians have generally backed health warnings, but opposed measures that deny smokers the choice of whether to continue smoking despite them.

The big breakthrough that came recently was the development of ways that separated the nicotine itself from the smoke that causes the vast bulk of the health consequences. Vaping and heated tobacco products enable the user to enjoy the one without the other. Studies claim to show that vaping, for example, is 95% safer than smoking. Vaping has been identified as easily the most effective route to giving up smoking for those who wish to do so. Despite this, some misguided health campaigners oppose it. San Francisco’s ban on vaping will undoubtedly lead to fewer people successfully giving up smoking, and therefore to more smoking-related deaths and crippling health conditions.

The new ways of enjoying nicotine without inhaling the damaging tobacco smoke might well lead to the near disappearance of smoking with a short time frame. Less than four centuries since Sir Walter first brought it to England, people may still be enjoying tobacco products, but it’s quite likely that they won’t be smoking them; except for cigars, of course, where people will still enjoy the aroma and the flavour, without inhaling the smoke.