The History of the Tobacco Industry

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  • 00:00 Tobacco
  • 00:42 Early Start
  • 2:55 Health Scares
  • 4:43 Modern History
  • 6:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rebecca Gillaspy

Dr. Gillaspy has taught health science at University of Phoenix and Ashford University and has a degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.

The use of tobacco was once thought to be a healthy lifestyle choice, but by the early 20th century, doubts were cast on this positive image. Learn about the history of the tobacco industry and how it handled the changing image of tobacco.


Tobacco, which is a plant containing leaves that can be dried and processed for smoking or chewing, was once thought to be a type of medicine that could cure your ills. In fact, early health care providers encouraged people to smoke tobacco for better health.

Today, we look at tobacco much differently. Tobacco products now come with a warning declaring that their use could result in cancer or other serious diseases. The changing attitude toward tobacco products is all part of the colorful history of the tobacco industry. In this lesson, we'll take a look at the early days of the tobacco industry and learn how the industry and the image of tobacco have changed.

Early Start

Even before Christopher Columbus made his way to America, Native Americans planted and harvested tobacco. They mostly smoked the dried leaves in pipes during ceremonies, but also used tobacco for medicinal purposes. Early European explorers were interested in tobacco. When Columbus returned to Europe, he carried some leaves and seeds along on his journey.

While we might credit Columbus with introducing Europe to tobacco, the crop did not become popular there until the mid-1500s, when Jean Nicot, a French diplomat and scholar, helped spread the discovery across Europe. Does the name Jean Nicot look somewhat familiar? Well, that's because his last name is the first five letters of nicotine, which is the addictive substance found in tobacco. Nicotine is the substance that makes it so hard for smokers to quit their habit.

Back in America, the demand for tobacco among settlers was increasing. In 1612, the first commercial crop of tobacco was produced in Jamestown, Virginia. The man behind this venture was John Rolfe. His efforts helped to establish the tobacco industry in the colony. In less than a decade, tobacco had become the number one export of Virginia, and commercialized growing of tobacco spread to other areas of the newly-forming United States.

Tobacco leaves can be used in different ways. They can be smoked in pipes or cigars, or come in the form of chewing tobacco or snuff, which are smokeless tobacco products. Yet, the most common way tobacco is consumed is through smoking cigarettes.

Cigarettes, at least in the hand-rolled and other basic forms, have been around since the early 17th century. However, the number of cigarette smokers did not grow exponentially until the first effective cigarette manufacturing machine was invented in the late 19th century. Once cigarettes could be mass produced, their popularity took off. However, it was not long before the tobacco industry would come under fire and face an uncertain future.

Health Scares

Up until the late 1800s, using tobacco was thought to be a healthy lifestyle choice, but when the 1900s rolled around, the benefits started to be called into question. Research started to surface that claimed that tobacco might not have health benefits and, worse, might be harmful to your health.

Some of the earliest official warnings against the use of tobacco came from the American Cancer Society in 1944. While they did not draw any definitive conclusions, they did point to evidence that there seemed to be a connection between smoking and lung cancer. As more studies started to appear linking the use of tobacco products with lung and other forms of cancer, the tobacco industry found itself with a product that was declining in popularity.

The tobacco industry fought back. Tobacco industry insiders founded The Tobacco Industry Research Council in late 1953 to respond to the growing fears linking tobacco to serious diseases. Reports from this council, along with a large public relations campaign, led the public to doubt the health risks associated with tobacco and renewed popularity in tobacco products.

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