Smoking has been traced back to approximately 18,000 years ago. Tobacco is a native plant to the Americas. Native Americans used tobacco primarily for medicinal purposes and other ritualistic purposes. Almost certainly, the tobacco plant was first chewed. The plant comes from the same family as the potato, the pepper plant and nightshade.
Tobacco became a tool for ritualistic purposes among indigenous people in the Americas along with opium and cannabis. They would smoke these plants during rituals to enhance their experiences. Both the Mayans and the Aztecs used tobacco and even included it in their storytelling. By the time the Europeans landed in the Americas, tobacco was an integral part of native culture.
When Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492, he was offered a gift of tobacco and knew that it was used for smoking. The plant and seeds were introduced to Europe when Columbus sailed back and it was immediately grown and sold.
Europeans believed, just as the indigenous American peoples did, that it was medicinal and had healing properties. Doctors wrote about it and attributed many curative properties to it in books. As tobacco became more and more popular in Europe, smoking became the preferred way to administer the ‘medicine’. Ironically, the doctor who promoted smoking tobacco in the late 1500’s died of a nasal malignancy, most likely from smoking his medicine!
The biggest proponent of tobacco smoking in England was a dandy favored by royalty, Sir Walter Raleigh. The colonial tobacco trade market took off as people became addicted to the substance. It was ‘reintroduced’ as a pleasure commodity in the New World by John Rolfe in Jamestown in the early 1600’s who began the first tobacco plantation after the reintroduction of tobacco.
As the Americas were increasingly colonized in the 1600’s, tobacco was used as a sort of money. It was used to barter with native peoples, but it was also used as a type of currency in Europe. By the mid-1600’s every civilization that was known smoked tobacco. At this time, however, the dangers of smoking were being realized and some people and governments were very vocal about how dangerous tobacco could be. It is highly ironic that some of the first civilizations to ban tobacco are the civilizations that have a large problem with it today. The Ottoman Empire thought that smoking was dangerous to morals and health. The Chinese emperor at the time banned smoking. Japanese shogun warriors did not like tobacco because it was a waste of farmland. However, the high society in Japan viewed tobacco smoking as high fashion and created smoking clubs.
Europeans quickly spread tobacco to Asia and Africa. India, South Asia and the Middle East were already smoking cannabis well before the introduction of tobacco by foreign traders. Although tobacco started as a fairly benign substance in the Americas, foreign traders quickly turned it into a booming, profitable commodity globally and it has reigned as one of the world’s most loved, yet most hated commodity since that time.