A Look at Tobacco's Dark History

Nov 02, 2018

The tobacco industry was built on the backs of African slaves and the genocide of indigenous Americans, and it continues to profit off the suffering of the oppressed by defining marginalized people as its “target audience.” According to the American Lung Society, African Americans have the highest rate of death from cancer than any other race or ethnicity in the United States. Robin Koval, CEO of the Truth Initiative, a national public health organization dedicated to fighting tobacco use, writes in the Huffington Post that there are 10 times more tobacco ads in black neighborhoods than in others. 

Unknowing targets
Additionally, tobacco retailers are more likely to appear near low- income schools than schools in other regions. In Massachusetts, big tobacco took a law that kept its retailers away from schools to the Supreme Court – it won the case. However, African American and low-income communities aren’t the only people exclusively targeted by tobacco companies. According to the Huffington Post, 46 percent of cigarettes in the United States are sold to those with mental illness, and 30 percent of men in rural communities smoke. Furthermore, tobacco companies have sponsored sporting events, funded homeless shelters, and granted scholarships in minority communities that include Asians, American Indians, African Americans, Latinos and the LGBT+ community, all with the intention of promoting their products. And as early as the 1920s and 1930s, cigarettes were marketed to women as a symbol of liberation and glamour . 

Tobacco’s History
Tobacco.org, an online resource center dedicated to compiling news, policies and product information related to the tobacco industry, arranged a timeline of tobacco from prehistory to the 21st century. In 1492, Christopher Columbus set foot on U.S. soil and was gifted with tobacco leaves by the American Indians. He threw them away. However, in the same year, Rodrigo de Jerez of Spain embraced the habit in Cuba. When he went back to Spain and demonstrated smoking, they had him jailed for witchcraft. During the seven years of his imprisonment, Spaniards picked up the habit of smoking. In 1501, Spanish colonizers brought slaves from Africa to Santo Domingo (currently the capital of the Dominican Republic) to work plantations that included sugar, rice and tobacco. For these crops, European colonizers decided slave labor was the easiest and cheapest way to maintain their growth. In 1612, the first commercial tobacco crop was established in Jamestown, Virginia. This lead up to the year 1636 when the first slave carrier was built, and to 1641 when Massachusetts became the first colony to legalize slavery. As slave trade ended in the late 1800s, 12.5 million Africans (according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database) had been shipped to the Americas to tend fields, many of which were tobacco. By this time, much of the indigenous population throughout the U.S., Central and South America, and the Caribbean, had  already been eradicated by European colonizers. 

Red flags waved centuries ago
Detailed in the timeline curated by Tobacco.org, the negative effects of tobacco were documented as early as the 1600s. In 1610, Sir Francis Bacon, an English philosopher and scientist, wrote that tobacco use “is a custom hard to quit.” Shortly after, in 1612, China made an imperial order to ban the use and planting of tobacco. Fast forward to the 1700s, and cancers of the lip and nose due to frequent tobacco use were documented. In 1701, Nicolas Andry de Bois-Regard, a French medical doctor, wrote, “Young people taking too much tobacco have trembling, unsteady hands, staggering feet and suffer a withering of their noble parts." It is also during this century that the first description of lung cancer appears. 

Despite the early warnings, the tobacco industry would continue to steamroll ahead. Effective regulation would not begin until the 20th century when American scientists, Ernst L. Wynder and Evarts A. Graham, published a report determining that 96 percent of lung cancer patients were heavy to moderate smokers. A study by Wynder showed that just painting cigarette tar on the back of mice developed tumors in their bodies. In 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General issued its first report on the health risks of smoking, and by 1965 this warning was printed on all cigarette cartons by law. In 1971, broadcast advertising for cigarettes was banned, but it wasn’t until 1994 that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the regulation of tobacco as a drug. 

Tobacco industry triples down
The centuries of health warnings and regulations have not deterred the tobacco industry. On Feb. 28, 1994, the American Broadcast Corporation (ABC network) aired a report claiming that tobacco companies spiked the level of nicotine in their products. The next week, ABC aired another report that listed all the additives contained in cigarettes – including arsenic, carbon monoxide and lead. In the 21st century, cigarettes have become even deadlier. 

Detailed in the Surgeon General’s 2014 report, smoking rates have decreased over the past 50 years but the risk of dying from cigarette smoke has increased. According to the Truth Initiative, tobacco companies now genetically engineer their crops to contain twice the amount of nicotine than in what’s grown naturally. Sugars, flavors and menthols are added to make the smoke easier to inhale, and ammonia is thrown into the mix to make nicotine travel to the brain faster. According to the Surgeon General, today’s smokers are at more risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) than smokers in 1964, despite the fact that they smoke fewer cigarettes than smokers did in the 1960s. According to the CDC, smoking currently accounts for 1,300 American deaths daily. 

Yes, there’s an app for that…
This Is Quitting is a mobile app for Apple® and Android® devices that acts as a worldwide, digital support group for smokers who aim to quit. In addition to the stories of those who are experiencing both common and unique struggles with quitting, the app features exercises that help individuals play an active role in their smoke- free journey. For example, one exercise encourages users to find a “cig cemetery” to discard their last cigarette. Users of the app can share their stories, frustrations and successes, all while being anonymous if they choose. 

The Positive Side: Cessation’s Immediate Benefits

The benefits of quitting smoking are almost immediate, and continue well into a person’s future. According to Medical News Today, the heart rate normalizes, circulation improves and blood pressure lowers within just 20 minutes of putting down a cigarette. After 12 hours, the body has cleansed itself of the excess carbon monoxide inhaled from cigarette smoke. After one day of quitting, a person’s risk of heart attack decreases. In the days to come, senses of smell and taste are heightened and the amount of nicotine in the body decreases. After a year, the lungs have healed themselves, circulation continues to improve, and the risk of coronary heart disease is halved. By 20 years of being smoke-free, the risk of dying by diseases related to smoking drop to that of a person who’s never smoked in their life.

About the Writer

Tempest Wright

Contributing Writer

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