Tobacco and Humanity: A Troubled Timeline

About eight thousand years ago, a nightshade plant sprouted throughout the Americas. Its potent effects would bring millions to addiction, slavery, and death. In addition, it would enable the United States to rise from the chaos of colonies to the surplus of superpower. Tobacco has been the subject of epic poetry, the instigator in civil wars, the soother of chronic pain, the pinnacle of industry, the enabler of shamanistic visions, and the murderer of the masses. The saga of tobacco has been gruesome, but the future might be brighter.


tobacco plantation


100 B.C.: Natives throughout the Americas use tobacco for religious and medicinal purposes. It was used to dress wounds and alleviate pain. Shamanic rituals involved massive overdoses for hallucinatory effects.

1492: Christopher Columbus samples dried tobacco leaves from the indigenous Americans. Colonists introduced tobacco to Europe.

1571: Spanish doctor Nicolas Manardes touts tobacco as a cure-all, claiming the plant could cure 36 ailments.

1588: Thomas Harriet of Virginia advocates smoking tobacco, as opposed to chewing the leaves.

1611: Tobacco becomes the chief crop of Jamestown. Slave labor accommodated the agricultural demands of the colony. Slavery would drive the economy for hundreds of years.

1776: The thriving tobacco industry helps finance the American Revolution. Tobacco was served as collateral for loans the Americans borrowed from France. Historians have claimed a young America could not have survived without this crop.

1836: New Englander Samuel Green declares tobacco to be an insecticide, and proposes it could be lethal to humans.

1860: The American Civil War erupts. At the heart of the conflict was slavery. A huge percentage of slave labor was applied in tobacco plantations.

1902: Phillip Morris establishes a New York headquarters. Marlboro would become one of the most successful brands in history.

1910: Beloved literary curmudgeon Mark Twain dies of his self-described “tobacco heart.”

1914-1918: Cigarette use explodes during the Great War.

1939: First patent for nicotine extraction produced by Clarence E. McCoy. This process would separate the chemical from the plant, paving the way for smoking-alternatives.

1939-1945: Cigarette sales achieve an all-time high during World War II. Cigarettes are supplied in military rations.

1963: Herbert A. Gilbert invents the electronic cigarette. The product failed to reach a wide market in its time.

1964: A report on “Smoking and Health” is issued by the Surgeon General.

1990: Smoking is banned on all domestic flights, except to Alaska and Hawaii.

2000: Cumulative tobacco-related deaths for the 20th century estimated at 100 million.

2006: Inventor and medical researcher Hon Lik releases the first atomizer-battery-tank vaporizer. The modern vaping industry is born.

2014: The electronic cigarette industry continues to grow, bringing in an estimated 2 billion dollars annually.

Tobacco has a grisly history, but there is good news: tobacco-free nicotine use is becoming mainstream. There is an important distinction to be made between tobacco and nicotine: nicotine is the active ingredient in tobacco products, whereas tobacco is the plant which contains thousands of potent chemicals (nicotine is among them). We cut out thousands of hazardous chemicals, and deliver the nicotine with a chemically simple alternative. Nicotine shows promise when it comes to treating mental disorders, along with arthritis relief. There is a reason people have a storied relationship with this crop, and perhaps mankind and nicotine will always be linked. It is crucial for humanity to be proactive about nicotine’s future so we don’t repeat the mistakes of yesteryear.

Something to think about:

What can we do to change the future of nicotine consumption? How soon do you think these changes will be commonplace?

Tim Mechling

Tim is Mt Baker Vapor's resident creative weirdo. He writes, composes music, draws, designs, produces podcasts, investigates, and blows the trumpet for the Common Man.

  • Jordan says:

    It’s definitely important that we not hide the history tobacco has in this country. Thanks so much for this excellent resource on the timeline.

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