Traditional Use

Tobacco had already long been used in the Americas, with some cultivation sites in Mexico dating back to 1400–1000 B.C. Many Native American tribes traditionally grew and used tobacco as an entheogen. Eastern North American tribes carried tobacco in pouches as a readily accepted trade item, and often smoked it in peace pipes, either in defined sacred ceremonies, or to seal a bargain. They smoked it at such occasions in all stages of life, even in childhood. They believed that tobacco is a gift from the Creator, and that the exhaled tobacco smoke carries one's thoughts and prayers to the Creator.


Following the arrival of the Europeans, tobacco becameincreasingly popular as a trade item. Hernández de Boncalo, Spanish chronicler of the Indies, was the first European to bring tobacco seeds to the old continent in 1559 following orders of king Philip II of Spain. These seeds were planted in the outskirts of Toledo, more specifically in an area known as "Los Cigarrales" named after the continuous plagues of cicadas ("cigarras" in Spanish). Before the development of lighter Virginia and White Burley strains of tobacco, the smoke was too harsh to be inhaled. Small quantities were smoked at a time, using a pipe like the midwakh or kiseru or smoking newly invented waterpipes such as the bong or the hookah.

Tobacco smoking and chewing and stuffing became a major industry in Europe and its colonies by 1700.

Tobacco has been a major cash crop in Cuba and in other parts of the Caribbean since the eighteenth century. Cuban cigars are world-famous.

In the late nineteenth century, cigarettes became popular. James Bonsack created a machine that automated cigarette production. This increase in production allowed tremendous growth in the tobacco industry until the health revelations of the late-20th century.


Following the scientific revelations of the mid-20th century, tobacco became condemned as a health hazard, and eventually became encompassed as a cause for cancer, as well as other respiratory and circulatory diseases. In the United States, this led to the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (MSA), which settled the lawsuit in exchange for a combination of yearly payments to the states and voluntary restrictions on advertising and marketing of tobacco products.

In 2003, in response to growth of tobacco use in developing countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) successfully rallied 168 countries to sign the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The Convention is designed to push for effective legislation and its enforcement in all countries to reduce the harmful effects of tobacco. This led to the development of tobacco cessation products.

Major Producers

Every year, about 6.7 million tons of tobacco are produced throughout the world. The top producers of tobacco are China (39.6%), India (8.3%), Brazil (7.0%) and the United States (4.6%)

Tobacco Leaf - Cultivation

Tobacco is cultivated similarly to other agricultural products. Seeds were at first quickly scattered onto the soil. However, young plants came under increasing attack from flea beetles (Epitrix cucumeris or Epitrix pubescens), which caused destruction of half the tobacco crops in United States in 1876. By 1890, successful experiments were conducted that placed the plant in a frame covered by thin cotton fabric. Today, tobacco is sown in cold frames or hotbeds, as their germination is activated by light.

In the United States, tobacco is often fertilized with the mineral apatite, which partially starves the plant of nitrogen, to produce a more desired flavor.

After the plants are about eight inches tall, they are transplanted into the fields. Farmers used to have to wait for rainy weather to plant. A hole is created in the tilled earth with a tobacco peg, either a curved wooden tool or deer antler. After making two holes to the right and left, the planter would move forward two feet, select plants from his/her bag, and repeat. Various mechanical tobacco planters like Bemis, New Idea Setter, and New Holland Transplanter were invented in the late 19th and 20th centuries to automate the process: making the hole, watering it, guiding the plant in — all in one motion.

Tobacco is cultivated annually, and can be harvested in several ways. In the oldest method still used today, the entire plant is harvested at once by cutting off the stalk at the ground with a tobacco knife. It is then speared onto sticks, four to six plants a stick and hung in a curing barn. In the 19th century, bright tobacco began to be harvested by pulling individual leaves off the stalk as they ripened. The leaves ripen from the ground upwards, so a field of tobacco harvested in this manner will involve the serial harvest of a number of "primings," beginning with the volado leaves near the ground, working to the seco leaves in the middle of the plant, and

finishing with the potent ligero leaves at the top. Before this the crop needs to be topped when the pink flowers develop. Topping always refers to the removal of the tobacco flower before the leaves are systematically removed and, eventually, entirely harvested. As the industrial revolution took hold, harvesting wagons used to transport leaves were equipped with man-powered stringers, an apparatus that used twine to attach leaves to a pole. In modern times, large fields are harvested mechanically, although topping the flower and in some cases the plucking of immature leaves is still done by hand. Most tobacco in the U.S. is grown in North Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia.

Tobacco Leaf - Curing

Curing and subsequent aging allow for the slow oxidation and degradation of carotenoids in tobacco leaf. This produces certain compounds in the tobacco leaves, and gives a sweet hay, tea, rose oil, or fruity aromatic flavor that contributes to the "smoothness" of the smoke. Starch is converted to sugar, which glycates protein, and is oxidized into advanced glycation endproducts (AGEs), a caramelization process that also adds flavor. Inhalation of these AGEs in tobacco smoke contributes to atherosclerosis and cancer. Levels of AGEs are dependent on the curing method used.

Tobacco can be cured through several methods, including:

Air Cured tobacco is hung in well-ventilated barns and allowed to dry over a period of four to eight weeks. Air-cured tobacco is low in sugar, which gives the tobacco smoke a light, mild flavor, and high in nicotine. Cigar and burley tobaccos are 'Dark' air cured.

Tobacco barn in Simsbury, Connecticut
used for fire curing of shade tobacco.

Fire Cured tobacco is hung in large barns where fires of hardwoods are kept on continuous or intermittent low smoulder and takes between three days and ten weeks, depending on the process and the tobacco. Fire curing produces a tobacco low in sugar and high in nicotine. Pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco, and snuff are fire cured.

Flue Cured tobacco was originally strung onto tobacco sticks, which were hung from tier-poles in curing barns (Aus: kilns, also traditionally called Oasts). These barns have flues run from externally fed fire boxes, heat-curing the tobacco without exposing it to smoke, slowly raising the temperature over the course of the curing. The process generally takes about a week. This method produces cigarette tobacco that is high in sugar and has medium to high levels of nicotine. Most cigarettes incorporate flue-cured tobacco, which produces a milder, more inhalable smoke.

Tobacco barn
used for flue curing of shade tobacco.

Sun-cured tobacco, Bastam, Iran.

Sun Cured tobacco dries uncovered in the sun. This method is used in Turkey, Greece and other Mediterranean countries to produce oriental tobacco. Sun-cured tobacco is low in sugar and nicotine and is used in cigarettes.

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Leaf Grading

Grading is important because leaves from many different sources may be blended to create a particular tobacco brand. As with grapes used in wine making, while the quality and characteristics can vary with each harvest, consumers demand consistency of taste, color and bouquet. In fact, it can be argued that the tobacco producer’s role can be even more challenging because consumers do not expect or want any variance from year to year.


The cured leaves are aged before going into the manufacturing stage. Here the tobacco is cut, conditioned and blended.


Tobacco leaves are traded as a commodity around the world. Increasingly, countries are moving from traditional trading floors, where the price is decided by auction, to contract-based systems, where buyers establish contracts with individual farmers to purchase their leaf. One thing that remains constant is the level of expertise required in buying the right amount of tobacco of the right quality to satisfy consumer demand.

Harmful Effects of Tobacco & Smoking

Comparison of the perceived harm for various psychoactive drugs from a poll among medical psychiatrists specialized in addiction treatment (published 2007). Tobacco is ranked the 3rd most addictive and 7th most harmful of 20 commonly used drugs.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), tobacco is the single greatest cause of preventable death globally. The harms caused by using tobacco include diseases affecting the heart and lungs, with smoking being a major risk factor for heart attacks, strokes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, and cancer (particularly lung cancer, cancers of the larynx and mouth, and pancreatic cancers).Inhaling secondhand tobacco smoke can cause lung cancer in nonsmoking adults.