Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum and N. rustica)

SOLANACEAE, Nightshade Family

Although a smoke of controversy continues to shroud this plant, tobacco (Nicotiana) has been and continues to be one of the most commonly used and socially important plants. Its use began in prehistoric America; ethnobotanists surmise that 8000 years ago the leaf blades of wild tobacco plants were wilted, dried, and then rolled into wads to make cigars or stuffed into pipes for smoking. Cigar smoking and the use of tubular pipes certainly have great antiquity because throughout South America forest-dwelling tribes that have been secluded for millennia have important rituals for smoking tobacco, sometimes also coupled with the use of hallucinogens. About ten species of Nicotiana were used, but now only two cultivated species, N. tabacum, the typical form, and N. rustica, which is a very powerful drug with up to 18% nicotine.

"Petun" (tobacco) has been used by primitive tribes in a number of ways to get the alkaloid nicotine absorbed by the body. Nicotine, a liquid alkaloid present in the smoke, is absorbed best through highly vascularized mucous membranes, particularly beneath the tongue, along the bucal cavity, in the stomach and small intestines, and from the tips of the lungs (alveoli). Chain smoking was invented by primitive tribes, where a shaman could smoke 12 meter-long cigars in a row. Snuffing involves blowing powdered tobacco into the nostrils, and this dust is blown so hard that it penetrates deeply into the nose and lungs, reaching the central nervous system and the brain in five seconds! Chewed tobacco is mixed with saliva and trickles down the throat. Tobacco has also been steeped in cold water and drunk to produce acute intoxication, and licking of a thick jelly concentrate of Nicotiana is almost always fatal and is done in a few regions as a bond between blood brothers. In the wet tropics, topical application of wet tobacco leaves on the skin can be effective, and nicotine can enter the body through the conjunctiva of the eye. Finally, some primitive tribes get immediate and great tobacco toxicity by inserting a wad of tobacco into the rectum--another potentially fatal method; this has immediate effect, because the nicotine does not have to pass through the liver.

Although much early tobacco use must have taken place in the tropical forests of South America, where the shaman used tobacco smoke to reach hallucinogenic states and thereby could see evil, the archeological evidence is fairly limited. A nasal snuffer from 100 B.C. was found in Mexico, and from Mexico have also come accounts that the Mayan priests used rising smoke to carry messages to the gods by blowing smoke to the four winds. More recently, Aztec leaders smoked tobacco before telling the people about their decisions. Tobacco was used in powdered form to ease the pain of childbirth, and hunting parties used wads of folded leaves to stave off hunger. In some societies the sick were routinely treated with tobacco smoke.

Columbus discovered tobacco along with America. On 13 October, 1492, he encountered a man on San Salvador with dry tobacco leaves, and on 2 November he saw the natives of Cuba smoking cigars. When traveling from island to island in the West Indies, natives carried tobacco with them, and cigars would be smoked as a peace offering at each island. Smoking the "pipe of peace" (calumet) was a widespread New World ceremony, and the calumet became a warpipe or tomahawk by combining the ax of the white man with the pipe function. Some people think that the common name of tobacco is derived from a pipe called habocq, a Caribbean term, later changed to tabac, whereas others feel the name came from Tobago, an island near Venezuela where tobacco was apparently originally cultivated.

The first Old World woman to smoke was Queen Isabella, who received a cigar from Columbus. The Spaniards established tobacco plantations in Haiti and Cuba by 1531 and shipped the cultivated New World tobacco to Spain in 1540. Seeds were soon imported to France by Andre Thevet in 1556, to Portugal (1558) and Spain (1559), and in 1560 Jean Nicot, the French Ambassador to Portugal, introduced tobacco to England. Nicot made a fortune selling tobacco, and this yielded the posthumous honor of having the genus named after him. Shakespeare did not write about tobacco, but later in the 17th century this plant become a panacea for dozens of illnesses. Spanish sailors made wild claims about this plant as an aphrodisiac.

Sir Walter Raleigh popularized tobacco in the court of Elizabeth I, and smoke rings were invented by the English gentlemen. So serious was the drain of silver on the English treasury, that in 1604 King James I imposed a stiff duty tax on tobacco to keep the silver out of Spanish hands. Some European leaders also banned or disdained tobacco use, but others praised it. The Chinese emperor K'ang Hsi demanded decapitation of tobacco salesmen after the Portuguese introduced tobacco in the Far East.

To stop trade with Spain, the English decided to set up tobacco plantations in the New World, specifically at Jamestown. In 1610 John Rolfe, later the husband of Pocohontas, set up plantations of N. rustica, and two years later he started N. tabacum; the first colonial tobacco arrived in England in 1613. In 1620, Queen Elizabeth I granted a tobacco monopoly to the Virginia Company. This monopoly lasted until 1632, when George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, grew tobacco and developed the Burley cultivar, which soon became the preferred tobacco form for Europeans. In the colonies, farmers planted tobacco rather than maize, because one could earn 50 pounds sterling per acre, five times more than with maize. So the colonists produced England's commercial needs for tobacco and hemp (Cannabis), and great wealth came to Virginia and Maryland. Ma England protected this industry by outlawing its domestic production (1760). Still, there was much at stake here, and deals were attempted to raise tobacco profits. At one time, Virginia and Maryland were tempted with lower taxes if they agreed to limit tobacco production and exclusively use British shipping. The colonists refused, and growers traded instead with the Dutch shippers in New Amsterdam (New York). Thus tobacco caused the colonists to ban together against England about 100 years before the First Continental Congress. On the other hand, tobacco (and hemp) caused the development of southern plantations and slavery in the colonies, and helped to establish the classes of landed gentry, middle class merchants, white overseers, and black slaves. In those times churches prayed for good crops and received payments from the landed gentry for those prayers. Tobacco money also paid for the education of the elite, including most of the men who became President of the United States in the first 50 years, and such people as Robert Carter, ancestor of President Jimmy Carter. But the lack of capital for growing tobacco also led to the financial system of buying on the installment plan; planters were heavily in debt to the merchants, who paid the bills of the gentry and thus practically owned those operations.

When you visit the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., the tour guide will tell you that Thomas Jefferson, a great patriot and in the spirit of Americana, in 1815 sold his vast personal library to the U.S. government after the British destroyed the existing library in Congress when they burned the Capital Building in the War of 1812. After some major haggling, Jefferson was paid $23,950 for his 6500 books, which started of the Library of Congress, now the greatest library on earth. What the tour guide may not tell you that Tom also had to sell his library to pay major debts incurred from tobacco farming.

The cigarette was invented in Spain and became popular; during the Crimean War, Turkish soldiers wrapped shredded tobacco with cannon fuse paper, which burned evenly. The first machine-made cigarettes were made in 1883 by J.B. Duke of Durham, North Carolina. By 1907 in the United States, per capita adult male consumption of cigars was 86 per year, and it was traditional to have a "stogy" after dinner with one or more glasses of brandy.

Although complaints about tobacco smoke in the parlor date back a long time, concerns about smoking health hazards are relatively new. From 1920 to 1950 nicotine levels in cigarettes were 35-40 milligrams, whereas now levels are significantly lower and carcinogenic tars have been reduced. Ironically, filter tips, which remove many bad elements in tobacco smoke, are cheaper to use than an equivalent amount of tobacco, but the prices charged consumers did not reflect that difference. Tobacco is a high cash crop, very profitable on land that would be nonprofitable for most food crops.

The plant is usually cultivated as a tall annual, although it is a perennial species. Seeds are sown in a seed bed and then transplanted to the field after two months. A well-developed fibrous root system is required to supply the great leaf area with water and nutrients. The large leaves, which are pubescent (hairy), have a high concentration of nicotine and other organic compounds. However, nicotine is manufactured in the roots and transported via the xylem to the leaves.

While growing in the field, tobacco plants are carefully tended; they receive much nitrogen fertilizer and have the flowering stalks and branches removed, so that only large leaves on a main axis are produced. The large basal leaves are picked by hand or machine, or the entire plant is cut and hung to dry. Leaves are wilted upside down in "hogsheads" in drying barns to reduce water content from 80% to 20%. This involves the change of leaf color from green to yellow, a breakdown of proteins into amino acids, and a conversion of starch to sugar. Slow air curing and quick flue curing then cause the leaves to ferment. Leaves of similar quality are tied into "hands" and sold at auction to large tobacco companies--surprisingly, U.S. tobacco was traditionally grown mostly by small farm operations (about 60,000 of them), especially in Kentucky and North Carolina. Afterwards there is more aging, blending, and the addition of other flavor, e.g., sugars or sorbitol, and moisturizers in the development of the final aroma. Much of the flavor comes from the sugars, including those resulting during fermentation as breakdown products. Unfortunately, coumarin, found in tobacco, is carcinogenic, and there are over 170 unusual organic chemicals in tobacco smoke, some of which undoubtedly are hazardous to your health.

Nicotine stimulates the nervous system, primarily by mimicking a natural compound in the body called acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter. Liquid nicotine does not volatilize upon heating; it enters body fluids, washes the nerve-muscle synapses, and thereby triggers electrical impulses to cross these synapses. Acetylcholine is quickly used and remade in the nerve cells, but nicotine cannot be broken down in the synapses and must take the longer route of being broken down by the liver. Consequently, the action of nicotine lasts about half an hour. Nicotine is also a biphasic drug, stimulating nerve impulses at low doses and depressing the system at high doses. At high doses a person dies when respiration is arrested, i.e., asphyxia.

Within the last two decades, the topic of tobacco as an addictive, cancer-producing drug has been center stage in the United States, and the issues are too numerous to be discussed in depth here. Annual deaths directly attributable to tobacco smoking, a.k.a lung cancer and other respiratory diseases now number half a million, smoking is a negative risk for people likely to experience cardiac diseases or mothers who are pregnant, and second-hand smoke is a potential health risk for individuals who involuntarily inhale heavy smoke for long periods of time in confined areas. Campaigns against smoking have had limited success, as teenagers in record numbers try smoking while adults in record numbers have made substantial strides to quit. Then as governments, work areas, and eating establishments have mostly put a halt to smoking around other people, while new clubs for men and women cigar smoking spring into being. Users of this drug called nicotine, apparently spiked into cigarettes to get smokers addicted, now becomes the "medication" as nicotine gum or dermal patches to help smokers quit the habit of smoking. The U.S. government, while forcing tobacco companies to pay for medical expenses of smokers and advertising to decrease teenage smoking, happily and greedily collects taxes on tobacco sales and profits to pay for lavish governmental programs that would be impossible without this "sin tax." Surely tobacco has been, and continues to be one of the most important plants in our history.

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