History and Significance of Cigarettes and Tobacco

MOUNTAIN Smokes Learning Center - History of Tobacco

The History and Effects of Cigarettes and 'Big Tobacco'

Cigarettes are a dry, tobacco-filled tube of mostly chopped or shredded tobacco leaves rolled in finely cut flammable paper with flammable. Traditionally made by hand, 'Big Tobacco' now produces these ‘chemical sticks’ by the billion, with over 5.5 billion cigarettes consumed worldwide every year.

Although tobacco use has been steadily in decline over the last decade, some 200 billion cigarettes are smoked annually in the US alone; and international statistics on smoking show even higher rates of smokers per capita outside the United States.

Despite mounting health concerns, cigarette use has stood the test of time, speaking to its popularity, addictive nature, and cultural and societal significance.

In this guide, we explore the history of cigarettes and tobacco, from old world plantations to modern-day use, and how cigarettes both rose and fell from favor among the public.

Where Did Tobacco Use Originate

Tobacco, made from the leaves of the Nicotiana plant, a relative of the nightshade family, began its story in indigenous regions of South and North America.

Substantiated by archaeological digs and studies, it is believed that tobacco was first discovered by the ancient Mayan peoples of Central America, sometime around the first century BC. Originally, tobacco was considered a sacred plant given to the Mayans by their gods, and used in various religious and spiritual rituals.

Archeological artifacts dating back over 12,000 years ago document the first use of tobacco by humans living in the Americas. This discovery was a major breakthrough, demonstrating the use of tobacco thousands of years prior to what had previously been confirmed.

Nuwer, Rachel (11 October 2021). "Mammoths Roamed when Humans Started Using Tobacco at Least 12,300 Years Ago". Scientific AmericanArchived from the original on 11 October 2021.

Duke, Daron; Wohlgemuth, Eric; Adams, Karen R.; Armstrong-Ingram, Angela; Rice, Sarah K.; Young, D. Craig (11 October 2021). "Earliest evidence for human use of tobacco in the Pleistocene Americas"Nature Human Behaviour: 1–10. doi:10.1038/s41562-021-01202-9. ISSN 2397-3374.

How Did the Use of Tobacco Spread?

Tobacco’s Early History: Pre-Columbian America

By the time European settlers had arrived in the Americas, tobacco had gained mainstream use, and smoking was commonly practiced. During this time period, Eastern North American tribes used tobacco for smoking, as a pastime, in ceremonies and rituals, and for trade. Tobacco persisted as a means of currency between Native American tribes and Colonists from the 1620s onward.

"Economic Aspects of Tobacco during the Colonial Period 1612-1776". Tobacco.org. Archived from the original on 17 February 2017.

Within America itself, tobacco use spread from the East to the South, first to the Mississippi Valley, and later spreading to South America as the Maya peoples migrated southward (470-630 AD).

It was trade that earned tobacco early adoption by Europeans, who took the practice of smoking back to Europe. By 1531 the first tobacco crop was being cultivated at Santo Domingo.

With the help of the English, Spanish and Portuguese, tobacco had spread rapidly across England, Europe and the majority of the old world by the 1600s.

Tobacco became so prevalent and valued that it was used as a monetary standard into the 1700s. But it wasn’t until the 1700s that the adoption of smoking had become increasingly widespread and the tobacco industry was well on its way to becoming a thriving market that would grow exponentially in the decades and centuries to come.


By the 1800s, the industrial revolution was really hitting its stride, with the tobacco industry benefiting from the advent of cigarette making machines capable of producing upwards of 200 cigarettes per minute (modern machines produce around 9,000/minute). For the first time, cheaply mass-produced cigarettes allowed tobacco companies to rapidly expand their reach.

When Did Humans Start Smoking Tobacco?

Around 6,000 BC the Native Americans began to cultivate what is now a $932.1 billion industry (Grand View Research, 2020). It is believed that around 1 BC the Indigenous tribes of the Americas began to smoke tobacco for both medicinal reasons as well as for ceremonial and religious purposes.

But it wasn’t until 1492 that Christopher Columbus first encountered this storied plant as dried tobacco leaves. Gifted by Native Americans, Columbus and his crew solidified their place as most likely the first Europeans to discover smoking tobacco.

The Early Economic and Agricultural Impact of Tobacco in the United States

In colonial America, tobacco quickly rose to become Virginia’s most successful cash crop. Used for trade and as a form of payment, over the next 160 years America saw tobacco spread from the Tidewater regions to the Blue Ridge Mountains and Chesapeake Bay area.

In 1619, America’s General Assembly established the first requirements for the inspection of tobacco, and mandated the establishment of port-based warehouses and settlements.

This move spurred the development of major settlements including Richmond, Alexandria and Norfolk, where tobacco formed the backbone of the colonies’ economy.

A regrettable note in the Nation’s history is that tobacco was used by early colonists to purchase indentured servants, as well as slaves who were forced to cultivate it. Tobacco was also commonly used to pay tithes and taxes and to purchase goods shipped to America from England. The cost of everyday items was often given in pounds of tobacco.

We already know tobacco played a big role in early American culture as a commodity, cash crop and even a form of currency. But it wasn’t until the 1800s through the mid-1960s that tobacco experienced exponential growth in demand and popularity (The National Academics of Science and Engineering Medicine, 2007).

On a per-capita basis, in 1900, adult Americans (on average) smoked an estimated 54 cigarettes per year. By 1963, smoking in the USA had reached its zenith, with a cough-inducing 4,345 cigarettes consumed per every adult in that year alone.

Let’s take a closer look at the factors that contributed to tobacco’s popularity from colonial times to the modern day.

Colonial Economics

Throughout America’s early agricultural history, tobacco was a cash crop commonly used in trade and commerce. Adoption of tobacco for this purpose was widespread, and initially solidified tobacco’s place in American culture.

The Industrial Revolution and Cigarette Manufacturing

The transition from loose leaf pipe tobacco to pre-rolled cigarettes made smoking cheaper, more accessible, and more convenient, fueling a dramatic rise in consumption.

With the advent of the machine-made cigarette, smoking cigarettes quickly outpaced all other tobacco products as a less expensive and faster way for Americans to get their nicotine fix.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics (2005), by the time tobacco hit its peak in the 1960s, over 40% of the adult population in the United States smoked cigarettes.

A Milder More Addictive Blend

In an effort to earn more market share, 'Big Tobacco' largely ditched harsher tobacco blends in favor of mellow tobacco blends that were less harsh on the eyes, lungs, and throat. This, combined with an increase in nicotine per cigarette, resulted in a smoother but also more addictive smoke.


Political and Policy Influence

‘Big Tobacco’ is considered one of the most influential and powerful lobbies both in the US and around the world. Their grip on politicians and influence in policy have aided in molding a market landscape favorable for increased growth and profits.

Media and Marketing Manipulation

The tobacco industry is well-known for its innovative and impactful marketing campaigns, leveraging major media, film, TV, radio, print and more to push its agenda and grow its market base.

'Big Tobacco' saw its first massive success with advertising in 1913 when R.J Reynolds spearheaded a mass marketing campaign for Camel Cigarettes, introducing it as the “American Blend”. This success led to other tobacco companies jumping on the mass marketing agenda, propelling demand from WWI onward.

In later years, marketing efforts evolved to include iconic figureheads and mascots, such as Joe Camel and the infamous Marlboro Man.

Such campaigns transcended traditional marketing and evolved to incorporate product placement on both the big and small screen alike. This move put cigarettes into the hands of some of the most famous and influential celebrities and entertainers in the world, further solidifying the smoking of cigarettes as a ‘cool’ and ‘stylish’ thing to do.

World Wars

During both WWI and WWII, the United States issued cigarettes to allied troops in an effort to boost morale. This lead to tens of thousands of American and allied troops coming home from the war addicted to tobacco and continuing its use well after the wars were over.

What Were Some of the Original Advertising Points of Smoking and Using Tobacco?

Early advertising points of smoking and using tobacco took advantage of the public’s lack of understanding regarding the serious health implications (and addictiveness) of its use.

Companies even went so far as to make claims that smoking was healthy. For example, Lucky Strike grabbed the attention of women across the nation with ads touting its cigarettes as a diet aid or weight loss tool. The slogan read, “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet".

Similarly, the Brown and Williamson Company (makers of Kool), claimed that their menthol cigarettes (the first of their kind) could soothe the throat and even protect against colds.


Ernster VL. 1985. Mixed messages for women. A social history of cigarette smoking and advertising. New York State Journal of Medicine 85(7):335-340.


When Did the Public Learn About the Harmful Effects of Tobacco?

Tobacco’s early history saw it touted as a ‘cure-all’ remedy, extending into the 15th century when Christopher Columbus brought tobacco to Europe where it was believed to have ‘healing powers’. Subsequently, smoking was touted as a convenient and easy way to get your daily dose of tobacco.

In 1602, the first documented report connecting a relationship between smoke inhalation and illnesses was published by an anonymous English author. Titled ‘Work of Chimney Sweepers’, this report documented an increase in illness among chimney sweepers and that tobacco use may have similar effects.

It wasn’t until the early 17th century that the medical and scientific community began to connect smoking to serious health complications including trouble breathing and difficulty quitting due to addiction.

In 1795, a German by the name of Sammuel Thomas Von Soemmering reported an increased incidence of lip cancer among pipe smokers.

A few short years later, US physician Benjamin Rush, published a report discussing the medical dangers of tobacco use (1798).

Through the 1920s, several medical reports linking smoking tobacco to lung cancers began to surface. However, the might of 'Big Tobacco' was ever-present, with many editors fearful of publishing these reports for fear of angering 'Big Tobacco' companies who were among the most lucrative advertisers.

Medical studies continued to press on through the 1950s, with reports documenting a broad range of illnesses now linked to smoking.

In 1964, a landmark report on smoking tobacco was published by the United States' Surgeon General. This report, for the first time, shed credible scientific light on the disastrous health effects caused by smoking.




What Changes Did Awareness of Health Risks Bring About?

  1. In 1632, Massachusetts lead the charge with a controversial statewide ban on smoking in public, marking the first-ever legislation restricting smoking.
  2. The Surgeon General’s 1964 report on the adverse effects of smoking lead to government regulation of the production and sale of cigarettes.
  3. By the mid 1960s, tobacco had reached its pinnacle of market penetration and adoption. Since 1964, tobacco use has steadily declined with just a singular rise seen throughout the first half of the 20th century.
  4. In 1967, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) enforced its ‘fairness doctrine’, requiring TV stations to air one anti-smoking public service announcement for every three tobacco ads run.
  5. In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Public Health Smoking Act. This act effectively banned tobacco companies from advertising cigarettes on both radio and TV. The ban took effect on January 2, 1971.
  6. In 1984, the U.S. government mandated that all cigarette companies include a U.S. Surgeon General's warning on packs of cigarettes sold (the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act).
  7. By the time 1985 came around, cigarettes rose to become the single largest cause of death in women, putting the spotlight back on smoking and its devastating impact on health.
  8. In 1997, the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement banned the promotion of tobacco on all public transportation signage and public billboards across 46 states.
  9. In 2010, the passing of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act placed further restrictions on tobacco companies, prohibiting them from sponsoring music, sports, and other cultural events.

How Many Global Tobacco Users are There Today?

How Many Tobacco Users are in the United States Today?

According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), nearly 14% of the US adult population (34.1 million) smoke cigarettes, with over 16 million living with a disease or condition attributable to smoking.

When we include non-smoking tobacco products in the tally (such as snuff or chewing tobacco), a study in the National Library of Medicine shows that this number increases to nearly 50.6 million Americans. And that’s not counting the 4.7 million middle school and high school children who partake.

How Many Tobacco Users Are There Globally Today?

The World Health Organization (July, 2021) reports that there are 1.8 billion tobacco users worldwide, resulting in more than 8 million deaths each year, and tens of millions of smoke-related illnesses.

What Are Some of the Modern Ways Countries and NGOs are Trying to Curb Tobacco Use?

The World Health Organization proposes that controlling the use of tobacco can save millions of lives and billions of dollars. Governments, non-profits, and NGOs agree.

Efforts to Curb Use of Tobacco Include:


Studies have shown that raising taxes on tobacco has a profound and measurable impact on consumer use. According to a study cited by the World Health Organization, an increase in tax of $0.80 USD per pack would reduce smoking rates by nearly 9%, resulting in 66 million fewer adult smokers.

Smoke-Free Policies

Smoke-free policies such as banning smoking indoors, in any government building, and within a specified number of feet from a building’s entrance may reduce smoking in adults. Colleges, universities and other organizations have followed suit, enacting their own smoking policies and bans on their premises (even when outside).

Counter-Advertising and Awareness Campaigns

Significant resources have been spent on counter-advertising and awareness campaigns highlighting the adverse effects of smoking and the cost it has on emotional, social, financial and physical health. These campaigns have evolved to be more approachable, relatable and modern, working to connect with the next generation(s) of smokers.

Research and Innovation in the Field of Dependence

Modern medicine has come a long way in discovering innovative ways to revolutionize addressing nicotine addiction. Such products can have a dramatic impact on public health and aid millions of individuals in curbing their addiction to smoking.

Civil Suits and Governmental Fines

Governments have increasingly put pressure on tobacco companies for their contribution to public health concerns, advertising practices, and products (allegedly) marketed to minors.

For example, in 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice filed an unprecedented civil lawsuit against major tobacco companies. This suit sought billions in damages for the long-term costs related to treating those with smoking-related illnesses covered by government health programs.

Alleged in the lawsuit was that tobacco companies directly caused an estimated $25 billion in government-supported health costs, and that these companies unlawfully conspired to conceal the health risks of smoking from the public.

Similarly, in 2006 the American Cancer Society (along with other plaintiffs), won a groundbreaking case against ‘Big Tobacco’, with the judge finding the tobacco companies guilty of lying to the American public with regards to the deadly effects of second-hand smoke and smoking.

There remains a concerted effort worldwide among governments and other organizations to keep the pressure on 'Big Tobacco', working to increase taxes, restrictions, regulations and laws in favor of public health over profit.

Tobacco Use Disproportionately Affects Minorities

As reported by the WHO, over 80% of the nearly 1.3 billion tobacco users worldwide live in low- and middle-income areas, a majority of which are comprised of various minority groups.

Among minority groups, tobacco continues to be a leading driver of illness and death, as well as contributing to impoverishment.


(1) Global Burden of Disease. Washington, DC: Institute of Health Metrics; 2019.


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