A Brief History Of How Smoking Went From Popularity To Demonisation

Smoking is not a modern habit – dating back thousands of years to different cultures and populations who used the imbibition of smoke and vapours as rituals and cultural traditions. 

Before it became illegal in the 20th century, cannabis was regularly smoked in different communities, probably up to about the 16th century. 

Tobacco as we know it today made its arrival on European shores during the 16th century. As a plant it had been cultivated in the Americas since 6000 BC, and Christopher Columbus received dried up leaves of the tobacco plant in gifts that he received from the native American tribes. Initially the dried up old leaves were considered unimportant, until Columbus observed the natives bartering over them, and soon understood the relevance to the local economy.

Spreading its trail across Europe

From here the tobacco trade soon spread via the shipping industry to Spain and Portugal, supplied by commercial tobacco growers in Brazil. The product was introduced to France by Jean Nicot, from whom the word nicotine derives. It was a shot hop from her over to Bristol in the UK, where a sailor was spotted in 1556 with smoke billowing out of his nose and mouth.

War and smoking

There have always been strong links between smoking and war. During the American Civil War in the 1770s, tobacco was used as collateral for loans that they had requested from the French government. 

It was the Great War in 1914 which saw cigarettes brought to the masses across Europe. Because of the impact of the cigarette making machine, invented by James Bonsack in 1881, in creating a mass produced product, during the war the tobacco companies provided millions of cigarettes to soldiers across the front lines. This supposedly generous and philanthropic gesture produced a generation of addicted customers who would stay with the tobacco companies for the rest of their lives – had they survived the war in the first place of course! 

When you consider that in 1924, over 70 billion cigarettes were sold in the United States, you begin to understand the absolute power that the tobacco industry was having on the behaviours of populations around the country.

Feminising tobacco

The 1920s saw a concerted effort to cash in on the market for women smokers, running campaigns such as the aptly named ‘Mild as May’ which endeavoured to shift the perception of the male habit of chewing and spitting tobacco, and feminise it into an attractive and glamorous habit indulged in by the most elegant and refined of women. The campaign worked a treat – tripling the number of women who started to smoke in just ten years.

During the first half of the 20th century, any damaging aspects of cigarette smoking was either not known, or conveniently glossed over. Although this fact become more widespread in the fifties and sixties, it was not until 1967 that the US Surgeon General made the definitive connection between smoking and lung cancer. It was from this moment that the whole scenario and public perception of smoking began to change. But it was to take another thirty years until the tobacco industry finally accepted some liability for their actions.

Today vaping has become a viable alternative to smoking, and has changed the entire landscape. Purchasing a vape on sale online or in dedicated shops does not carry the same stigma as tobacco products, which are sold from behind locked cupboards and adorned with an array of government warnings and frightening images of the damage to your health which is caused by tobacco. 

However, instead of eliminating the suffering caused by tobacco, the issues have simply been moved onto new and emerging markets in the third world. The problem is far from over!