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History of Tobacco Smoking: A Volatile Journey Through Time

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    How was the first cigarette invented?

    Smoking has a diverse history. People have been smoking for thousands of years, using pipes, bongs, and hookahs. Chewing or snuffing tobacco were also standard practices. However, the first people who started rolling cigars were the Spanish; and it was poor female workers who began producing smaller versions, known as ‘cigaritos.’ The French adopted this practice and called their products ‘cigarettes.’

    The history of tobacco smoking is a volatile journey full of colorful traditions, spiritual revelations, and health regulations. Smoking is as old as civilization, and that’s not a cliche. Tobacco has been known in the Americas for more than thousands of years. But how did this plant conquered the world?

    Ancient Times

    The Americas

    It’s believed that the first people who came across with the magical properties of tobacco were the Asian people who came in one migratory wave and spread across the Americas. Human curiosity is more than natural, and over 2000 years ago, pushed by their need for exploring the world, people in the Andes Mountains started chewing tobacco leaves. That was considered as a spiritual practice because people who used tobacco could easily reach a state of stupor. On top of that, tobacco was widely used due to its medical and harvesting properties. Shamans used it to spread prosperity, fertility, and peace. The most common method was smoking a pipe.

    Ancient Egypt

    Far from the Americas, another major civilization couldn’t stay away from the mystical properties of smoking. Experts still do not know how tobacco smoking started in Egypt, but there’s evidence that tobacco had been used even in the era of the Pharaohs. Incenses were widely employed in rituals and ceremonies.

    Ancient Europe

    Ancient Greece and Rome were also fascinated by smoking, and although tobacco was still not so common, some of the ingredients used by doctors and philosophers were opium, Valerian, and marijuana. Bone marrows and clay pipes were the primary devices used for smoking.

    Ancient Asia

    Just like Ancient Europe, the Middle East and Southern Asia were also known for marijuana smoking, while East Asia had inclinations towards opium smoking. Hookahs, bongs, pipes, and chillums were the main methods people used to smoke. Note that it was Persia where hookahs were invented: they varied from fine pieces of art through coconuts and bamboo parts.

    Middle Ages

    The Americas

    While there’s not much information about tobacco smoking in the Ancient World, we should admit that the Middle Ages didn’t shed more light on the topic. Not surprisingly, this period is known as the Dark Ages. At least, there’s one journey that changed history and put a start of the Age of Discovery. In 1492, Columbus discovered a whole new universe: the universe of tobacco and smoking.

    Although Christian practitioners claimed that smoking and its euphoric effects were satanic, tobacco use spread so quickly that in 1531 people started growing tobacco in Europe. Doctors believed in its cleansing properties and used it as analgesic and antiseptic. In 1560, Jean Nicot introduced smoking to France, and in fact, it’s believed that the word ‘nicotine’ derives from his surname.


    However, when we hear the word ‘smoking,’ we associate it with pleasure. Isn’t that right? The first cigarette of the day and the initial kick of adrenaline. Well, it was Sir Walter Raleigh who popularized tobacco smoking as a pleasurable habit across England. As tobacco became a favorite product of many, tobacco became a leading participant in the colonial industry. English loved their pipes, Spanish preferred their cigars, and the French couldn’t resists their snuffs.


    Colonialism and its impact on slave trade can be described as a symbolic continuation of the Dark Ages. However, colonialism twisted today’s perceptions of globalism. As mentioned earlier, England accepted smoking as a joyful habit, so having a colony meant more tobacco supply. Some tea from China and India, and some tobacco from America – England had it all. John Rolfe was the first one to cultivate successfully Nicotiana tobaccum, which was shipped to the UK in 1613.

    Tobacco trade spread not only in America and Europe but Africa and the rest of the world. In a matter of fact, tobacco became popular within the Japanese society in no time, and Samurai knights had even silver pipes to smoke it. It’s curious to mention that Japanese also had an incense tray, which became today’s ashtray.


    It was inevitable and smoking practices changed dramatically. As stated earlier, the Spanish loved their hand-rolled cigars, so the Spanish tobacco industry thrived and offered their rolled products to the world. Not surprisingly, high demand meant high prices. So it was the smaller hand-made versions of cigars, made by poor single women, that became the first known cigarettes. The French adopted the Spanish word ‘cigarito’ and transformed it in ‘cigarette.’ In fact, by 1830, the French started manufacturing modern cigarettes.

    Modern History

    Later on, James Bonsack patented a machine that could produce 200 cigarettes a minute, eliminating the need for workers. It wasn’t only the new techniques, though. Something else changed history and history of smoking in particular: advertising. As tobacco smoking started in America, it was the U.S. that began promoting tobacco products. Thus, made on a conveyor and advertised, cigarettes became highly in demand throughout the world. For women, cigarettes were seen as ‘torches of freedom’ because they empowered their social roles.

    Around the same time, doctors started to realize that tobacco smoking correlated with lung cancer and other health problems. Even before that, doctors linked smoking with lip cancer, but it was around the 20’s when the first studies and reports appeared – something that caused a war between science and advertising media, a war that cost millions of dollars.


    Nowadays, smoking is still a favorite habit of many. Data shows that only in the U.S., more than 36.5 million people over 18 smoke cigarettes. Although anti-smoking campaigns and new regulations try to decrease these numbers, people across the globe – regardless of religion, age, and gender – smoke. We should mention that vaping is today’s competitor that complicates the phenomenon of smoking.

    To sum up, tobacco smoking is an old habit practiced across ancient civilizations and powerful empires. On top of that, tobacco companies are giants that slowly crash health regulations and anti-smoking laws.

    One thing is for sure: tobacco has been and will always be available. So it’s up to you: would you take part in its dangerous journey or would you enjoy a smoke-free life?

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