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The Changing View of Tobacco Use in American History

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Currently, smoking is considered an epidemic that infiltrates societies around the world. It is looked down on by first world countries, and it is known to be a practice that is harmful to the body, causing many fatal diseases, such as lung cancer. However, this negative view of tobacco was not always held in the past. For much of American history, tobacco and the cigarette industry held an essential role in the American economy, starting from the colonial times. However, new scientific evidence in the latter part of the 20th century debased cigarette companies, leading to the rise of e-cigarettes. Throughout American history, society’s view of tobacco changed as scientific evidence proved it harmful to one’s health.

In 1619, John Rolfe perfected the cultivation of tobacco in Virginia. From the beginning of his colonization, Rolfe thought that Virginia would be a good location to grow tobacco. However, people said that Virginia Tobacco was not as good as those coming from the Caribbean. Therefore, Rolfe grew tobacco imported from the West Indies, and it became an almost instant success. Just a little over a decade later, 1.5 million pounds were being exported from the Virginia colony every year. By the end of the century, In England alone, on average, every person was smoking two pounds of tobacco every year. By then, other colonies in America, mainly the ones in the south, also started to take on the business of exporting of this cash crop. There was actually such a large supply of tobacco that tobacco prices started to deflate. However, instead of controlling the supply, farmers in the colonies grew increasing amounts of tobacco to make up for the decreasing prices. This in turn started a chain reaction; because prices dropped, farmers had to grow more, which made them look for more land. With all the new land came the need for more labor to work the fields.

Tobacco was not only an essential part of the economy in colonial times, but its influence reached far into the lives of everyone in the colonies. It even penetrated into the religious aspects of colonial life. According to the Virginia Blue Laws, If you fail to attend church for a week, then the penalty is 1 lb of tobacco, and if absent for a month, the fine is 50 lbs. In many colonies during this time period, attendance to the church was an important aspect to the colonists’ lifestyle. The fact that it was made up by tobacco shows the value of it. Because fines to the church could be paid in this plant, tobacco is being treated almost as a kind of currency, which emphasizes its indispensable role to the economy.

Although there were some slaves in the colonies in the 17th century, they were too expensive. The population of the colonists grew too slowly to provide a growing workforce and the Native Americans died too quickly from diseases to be a reliable source of labor. Therefore, colonists started looking to the multitude of poor people in the mother country. Advertisements in England enticed these poor people with opportunities to start a new life if they came to the Americas and gave a few years of labor. After their service, they would recieve freedom dues which would allow them to live self sufficiently. This may seem reasonable from the outside and many people from England were lured into this bargain. As a matter of fact, indentures who were transported to the New England colonies and the Quakers were treated humanely and also had many opportunities for their future after freedom. However, conditions in the Colonies were sometimes extremely harsh. Especially in the South, under extreme working conditions, many indentures died before they finished their term of service. In addition, because they lacked incentives for their work, servants were unmotivated and masters threatened them with increased term of service in order to keep them working hard. This practice of indentured servitude continued for a few decades until the overpopulating former indentured servants couldn’t find any left over land to settle down and live after freedom. This eventually resulted in an uprising of angry indentured servants, known as Bacon’s rebellion. In addition to this, former indentures also started growing tobacco and selling them on their own. This created competition in the market. Because of these factors, landowners eventually turned to slaves because they were to give their labor for their lifetime and they were easier to control.

Long after the colonial era, whether it was through smoking in a pipe, or with cigarettes, tobacco continued to be an essential industry in America. Much like in the 1600s, tobacco continued to dominate the American economy in the next few centuries. Throughout the span of this period, people were still oblivious to the fact that smoking posed a serious health hazard.

In the beginning of the 20th century, cigarette businesses were booming with success. From the late 19th to the early 20th century, tobacco accounted for 1.4% of the total country’s GDP and it was nationally the fourth largest cash crop. In some states such as Virginia and Maryland, it ranked first. There were little regulations against buying this common good therefore, everyone was able to smoke. During this time, people had no idea of the risks they were taking with each cigarette they smoked. Not only was tobacco considered harmless, but it was thought to have good effects on the body. Thomas Hariot, a colonist who wrote a report on Virginia, made a comment on tobacco in his report, saying “The fumes purge superfluous phlegm and gross humors from the body by opening all the pores and passages. Thus its use not only preserves the body, but if there are any obstructions it breaks them up.” These sentiments on this crop predisposed people in the future to smoke freely without blinking twice. Even well into the 1960s, cigarettes were still receiving large amounts of media publicity. It was not uncommon to see athletes, radio, TV and movie stars, and even doctors, to be seen smoking or advertising cigarette companies. Companies were also common sponsorers of popular TV shows on all the large TV networks. It seemed like tobacco would continue to be part of the American culture for a long time to come.

Although the vast majority of people up till the 1960s thought that smoking was harmless or beneficial to one’s health, even in colonial times, some people got the idea that smoking is harmful to one’s health, spirit, or mentality. For example, King James I said in a document that smoking was “A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs”. Like King James I, some were shown to be skeptical about this new crop that everyone enjoyed smoking. They were making claims about the harm that this plant can have on people. However, their claims went disregarded until the latter part of the 1900s. In 1957, evidence started to appear that suggested that smoking could be harmful to the body. The main claim was that smoking was a cause of lung cancer. This led the sale of tobacco to decline until companies advertised ‘filtered cigarettes’ which they claimed to be less harmful, and customers flocked to buy these ones over the old cigarettes. However, the claims that these filtered cigarettes were harmless were just a hoax; they provided little improvement. Therefore, these ‘improved’ smoking devices were just a way for companies to continue to raise revenue.

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Despite these attempts to assuage the public about cigarettes, the companies realized they had to take action as an overwhelming amount of evidence continued to point at tobacco as a cause of lung cancer. Companies hired doctors and professors to defend them and argue that the scientific evidence was false. However, after the General Surgeon’s report in 1964, which convicted smoking as a cause of cancer, smoking rates inevitably fell. A common pattern was that people of high social class smoked less and less, while the people of the poorer class continued to smoke a lot. This is why many people today associate smoking with the lower classes of society.

A large dilemma faced by the country at this time was that despite the fact that smoking was harmful, cigarettes was still an essential part of an economy. Therefore, if people were to suddenly stop smoking, a large part of the US GDP would suddenly disappear. Politicians who thought the economic issues were more important than health issues argued that restricting advertising and sale of cigarettes would affect the factory workers, farmers, advertisers, sellers, and cities, such as Richmond, Virginia, all in a negative way. This shows how deeply embedded the tobacco industry is in many aspects of America. Although people might have agreed that smoking was harmful to people’s health, they could do little as undermining this industry would most likely have disastrous effects on the economy. In this way, people supporting cigarette companies could use this as leverage to justify that the cons that come with restricting cigarette sales would outweigh the pros. Something else that cigarette companies did to preserve their customers was to hide scientific evidence pointing to smoking as a cause of cancer. Even though companies knew about the harms of smoking, they would rather endanger the lives of many than to lose money. This is one of the examples of moral corruption that is associated with the tobacco industry as a result of greed and money.

Despite companies’ efforts to preserve their cigarette industries, as time went on, cigarette boxes had to have warning labels on them, tobacco soon became looked down upon, and the industry eventually declined. More public spaces forbade smoking in their areas, discouraging smoking in society. A poll in 1966 asked people if they thought that smoking was a cause of lung cancer. Only 40% said that it was a major cause. However, when the question was asked again in 2001, 71% recognized it as a major cause. Another example of the changing public view of tobacco was that in 1980, 37% considered smoking an addiction. In 2002, this number rose to 74%. Throughout the 1960’s to early 2000’s, companies were starting to face lawsuits and they had to deal with them sooner or later.

In 1997, delegates from the five most prominent tobacco companies gathered to deal with the 300 billion dollars in lawsuits that had accumulated over the past 25 years. In addition to paying 200 billion over the next 25 years, the companies agreed to put sufficient warnings on cigarette labels and finance anti-smoking activities, such as athletics. They drafted the Tobacco Manufacturer’s Settlement, in which these companies agreed to put restrictions on the sale of cigarettes. In the preamble, companies stated problems to society posed by cigarettes, which included the fact that a generation of adults and children are now dependent on cigarettes and previous restrictions on cigarettes failed to curb adolescent tobacco and drug use. People might have thought that increasing restrictions on the sale and the introduction of athletic programs and scholarships from cigarette companies would solve the nationwide problem of smoking. Despite these regulations, underage smoking continued to be a problem and it would also be a precedent for future problems that carry into modern times.

While it seemed as if the threat of smoking was gone after the plentiful restrictions, prospective cigarette companies introduced electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, which they claimed to have little to no health risks. In 1967, Herbert Gilbert patented the e-cigarette, which replaced the burning paper with vaporized air, hence the common name, vape. Even though nicotine was still being inhaled, a study in 2008 found that e-cigarettes were 100 to 1000 times less harmful than traditional cigarettes, deeming e-cigarettes a good alternative. The next year, Jordan’s Ministry of Health found that the e-cigarettes in fact had more toxic chemicals in addition to nicotine. As a result, the FDA banned the importing of e-cigarettes into America. With the introduction of e-cigarettes, an example of a toxic substance that people did not have to worry about before is vape flavors. There are thousands of vape flavors in the market and many of them can cause respiratory issues and other problems. According to the CDC, e-cigarettes resulted in 55 deaths and 2506 hospitalizations in 2019 alone. Despite these statistics, e-cigarettes is a continuing problem in the US.

Recently, a company has dominated the e-cigarette news: Juul. This company sells vaping devices which are infamous for looking like a harmless USB drive. In 2019, Illinois became one of many states to sue Juul. The lawsuit states that Juul attracts young customers with the sleek design and the variety of flavors it provides. By accusing Juul of targeting teens as customers, the company is accused of undoing years of work done previously to lower rates of adolescent smoking. The prevalence of nicotine addiction through Juul extends to most if not all schools and vapes are now almost a commonplace item in highschools. Juul has contributed in drastically increasing the number of highschool e-cigarette users in just a span of three years. In 2017, when Juul was made into a company, 11% of highschoolers regularly used e-cigarettes. In 2018, the number rose to 21%, and in 2019, 27.5% of highschoolers regularly used e-cigarettes. That is over a quarter of highschoolers in the country or around 4 million students, all of whom are susceptible to serious health problems in the future, severely crippling a whole generation of Americans. Although Juul might claim that it is trying to provide an alternative to smoking traditional cigarettes, studies show that people who Juul are actually more likely to start smoking cigarettes in the future. The dependence on nicotine at a young age can also make teens more likely to use other drugs and alcohol habitually. With the health problems come negative mental effects. Vaping for teens can cause lack of focus, which has a large negative impact on how well students do at school. It also can lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression.

In order to fight this epidemic, highschools now often have programs that spread awareness to younger people about drugs so they could say no to it before it is too late. In social media, there are now a flood of advertisements that show the dangers of vaping and its impact. All these efforts are put in as retaliation to this statistical rise in teen vapers.

Smoking tobacco was a practice that prevailed throughout American history, starting with its introduction in the colonial era. This cash crop soon escalated into a massive industry that supported the economy for years. It was only in the 1960s that people started realizing that there were health issues that came with smoking. As a result of the overwhelming scientific evidence pointing to smoking as a cause of cancer, cigarette sales declined rapidly and lawsuits were filed against cigarette companies. However, a new era of cigarettes came with the invention of e-cigarettes, which were said to be harmless compared to traditional paper cigarettes. Soon, people were still finding health problems related to e-cigarettes. Despite this, with the introduction of Juul, more high school students started vaping than ever, becoming addicted to the nicotine. This addiction not only causes health related problems, but also mental issues such as depression. As the US continues to fight back against addiction even throughout the 21st century, no matter which way one looks at it, it seems to be clear that King James was right centuries ago when he said that smoking was a harmful practice.

Works Cited

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The Changing View of Tobacco Use in American History. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-changing-view-of-tobacco-use-in-american-history/
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The Changing View of Tobacco Use in American History. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-changing-view-of-tobacco-use-in-american-history/> [Accessed 1 Feb. 2023].
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