The global tobacco market exceeds half a trillion dollars annually. If tobacco were a country, it would be roughly the 20th largest economy in the world. Join Active Minds as we tell the story of tobacco, from its roots to its leaves. We will cover the origins of tobacco, the role it has played in history as a plantation crop, and the rise and fall of tobacco in the U.S. As part of that, we’ll discuss how tobacco’s adverse health effects impacted society, consumption and created one of the largest legal settlements in history. We will end with a brief discussion of e-cigarettes and vaping.

Key Lecture Points

  • Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the world, costing around 7 million lives per year globally.  For every person who dies because of smoking, at least 30 people live with a serious smoking-related illness. In spite of education campaigns about the serious dangers of using tobacco, the addictive compound nicotine found in tobacco keeps around 15% of the global population dependent on tobacco use.
  • Tobacco was one of the major commodities to be domesticated and cultivated in the Americas and traded for great profit throughout Europe and the rest of the world. As globalization has advanced from colonial trade to present-day transnational corporations, the business of tobacco has mirrored that transition. The use of tobacco has spread to every country in the world, and emerging markets like China, India, and Brazil have made demand for tobacco continue to rise through the present day.
  • As a highly labor-intensive crop, tobacco cultivation was a major factor in the advent of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In English colonies in particular, tobacco plantations were the first places where African slaves worked in what would later become the United States.
  • In an attempt to decrease the rate of disease and death caused by the use of tobacco products, since 1964 the US government has attempted to maintain tight control over the sale and marketing of tobacco. The last sixty years of the industry have been marked by a series of regulations, successfully aimed at reducing tobacco use. Smoking tobacco peaked in 1966 in the U.S. and rates of use continue to drop.
  • A new wave of nicotine products called e-cigarettes have gained steam among U.S. consumers since their introduction to the market in the mid-2000s. These products deliver nicotine through a vapor mixture of water and other chemicals. Marketing claims have been made that e-cigarettes help smokers wean themselves off of smoking and, ultimately, all nicotine use. However, little research exists on how e-cigarettes are being used and how toxic they may be, so regulations on these new devices are limited. E-cigarettes are particularly popular with young people, and may lead to use of traditional smoking methods later in life.

Exploration Questions

  • How did tobacco shape the evolution of the U.S. economy? What other commodities that had similarly big impacts?
  • What are some major trends in public perception of tobacco through history? What has influenced these perceptions?

Reflective Questions

  • Why do you think Colorado has the highest rate of e-cigarette use, particularly among teens?
  • Do you remember cigarette advertisements from before the ban on such marketing? Who were the advertisements targeting? How did they portray smoking?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Norton, Marcy. Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World. A Passage to India. Cornell University Press, 2008. 352 pages.  This well-researched history tells the fascinating story of contact, exploration, and exchange in the Atlantic world, tracing the ways in which these two goods of the Americas both changed and were changed by Europe.
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  • Oreskes, Naomi and Erik M. Conway.  Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Bloomsbury Press, 2008. 364 pages.  The authors tell how a loose-knit group of high-level scientists and scientific advisers, with deep connections in politics and industry, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades.
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  • Rabin, Robert and Stephen Sugarman. Regulating Tobacco. Oxford University Press, 2001. 312 pages. This collection includes essays by eleven leading public health experts, economists, physicians, political scientists, and lawyers, whose activities encompass Congressional testimonies, Surgeon General's reports on youth smoking, and clinical trials for drugs for smoking cessation.
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