Tuesday, June 26, 2007
New World Nicotine: A Brief History
“Drinking the Smoke”
The prototypically North American contribution to the world drug trade has always been tobacco. Tobacco pipes have been found among the earliest known Aztec and Mayan ruins. Early North Americans apparently picked up the habit from their South American counterparts. Native American pipes subjected to gas chromatography show nicotine residue going back as far as 1715 B.C. “Drinking” the smoke of tobacco leaves was an established New World practice long before European contact. An early technique was to place tobacco on hot coals and inhale the smoke with a hollow bone inserted in the nose.
The addicting nature of tobacco alarmed the early missionary priests from Europe, who quickly became addicted themselves. Indeed, so enslaved to tobacco were the early priests that laws were passed to prevent smoking and the taking of snuff during Mass.
New World tobacco quickly came to the attention of Dutch and Spanish merchants, who passed the drug along to European royalty in the 17th Century. In England, American tobacco was worth its weight in silver, and American colonists fiercely resisted British efforts to interfere with its cultivation and use. Sir Francis Bacon noted that “The use of tobacco is growing greatly and conquers men with a certain secret pleasure, so that those who have once become accustomed thereto can later hardly be restrained therefrom.” (As a former smoker, I am hard pressed to imagine a better way of putting it.)
Early sea routes and trading posts were determined in part by a desired proximity to overseas tobacco plantations. The expedition routes of the great 17th and 18th Century European explorers were marked by the strewing of tobacco seeds along the way. Historians estimate that the Dutch port of Amsterdam had processed more than 12 million pounds of tobacco by the end of the 17th Century, with brisk exports to Scandinavia, Russia, Prussia, and Turkey. (Historian Simon Schama has speculated that a few enterprising merchants in the Dutch tobacco industry might have “sauced” their product with cannabis sativa from India and the Orient.)
Troubled by the rising tide of nicotine dependence among the common folk, Bavaria, Saxony, Zurich, and other European states outlawed tobacco at various times during the 17th Century. The Sultan Murad IV decreed the death penalty for smoking tobacco in Constantinople, and the first of the Romanoff czars decreed that the punishment for smoking was the slitting of the offender’s nostrils. Still, there is no evidence to suggest that any culture that has ever taken up the smoking of tobacco has ever wholly relinquished the practice voluntarily.
A century later, the demand for American tobacco was growing steadily, and the market was worldwide. Prices soared, with no discernible effect on demand. “This demand for tobacco formed the economic basis for the establishment of the first colonies in Virginia and Maryland,” according to drug researcher Ronald Siegel. Furthermore, writes Siegel, in his book “Intoxication”:
"The colonists continued to resist controls on tobacco. The tobacco industry became as American as Yankee Doodle and the Spirit of Independence…. British armies, trampling across the South, went out of their way to destroy large inventories of cured tobacco leaf, including those stored on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation. But tobacco survived to pay for the war and sustain morale."
In many ways, tobacco was the perfect American drug, distinctly suited to the robust American lifestyle of the 18th and 19th Centuries. Tobacco did not lead to debilitating visions or rapturous hallucinations—no nodding out, no sitting around wrestling with the angels. Unlike alcohol, it did not render them stuporous or generally unfit for labor. Tobacco acted, most of the time, as a mild stimulant. People could work and smoke at the same time. It picked people up; it lent itself well to the hard work of the day and the relaxation of the evening. It did not act like a psychoactive drug at all.
As with plant drugs in other times and cultures, women generally weren’t allowed to use it. Smoking tobacco was a man’s habit, a robust form of relaxation deemed inappropriate for the weaker sex. (Women in history did take snuff, and cocaine, and laudanum, and alcohol, but mostly they learned to be discreet about it, or to pass it off as doctor-prescribed medication for a host of vague ailments, which, in most cases, it was.)
Excerpted from The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction © Dirk Hanson 2008, 2009.
By Dirk Hanson