Slice of History: Columbus Discovers Tobacco: Oct. 15, 1492

Soon after landing with his crews in the New World on the island he names San Salvador, Christopher Columbus meets natives who offer him presents of fruit, wooden spears and “certain dried leaves which gave off a distinct fragrance.”

The men eat the fruit, but throw away the leaves.

A few weeks, later, however, while exploring the island that’s now Cuba, a few of Columbus’ crew members observed more natives smoking the same herb wrapped in palm leaves. They learned from the natives that the leaves seemed to keep them from getting tired or hungry.

One of the Spaniards, named Rodrigo de Jerez, tried it and liked it, and, in doing so, became the first European to smoke tobacco. He took some seeds--and his new habit--back with him to Spain.

But some of his neighbors became upset at the sight of smoke billowing around his head and reported him to authorities. The Spanish Inquisition ruled that “only the Devil could give a man the power to exhale smoke from his mouth” and sent Jerez to prison for seven years.

However, a Spanish monk named Ramon Pane, who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage across the Atlantic in 1493, also became intrigued with tobacco and wrote lengthy descriptions of how the natives used it, including smoking it in Y-shaped pipes. He took more seeds back to Spain and slowly smoking tobacco started to catch on.

As early as 1525, the smoking was being described as something that could “clarify the mind and give happy thoughts.”

By the middle of the 16th century, tobacco was seen as something of a wonder drug, and given to patients as a treatment for headaches, colic, hysteria, hernia, and dysentery, toothache, falling fingernails, worms, bad breath, lockjaw, and yes, even cancer.

There were, however, powerful people who saw smoking as a dangerous trend. In 1604, England’s King James I called it “loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain and dangerous to the lungs.”

In 1634, Czar Alexis of Russia decreed new penalties for smoking.  A first offense resulted in a whipping and slitting of the person’s nose.  A second offense brought execution. And, in China, at about the same time, the use or distribution of tobacco was made punishable by decapitation.

But that wasn’t enough to slow its growing popularity in Europe, where most people consumed tobacco in long-stemmed clay pipes and then, in 18thcentury France, as snuff inhaled through the nose.

Opposition to tobacco diminished as it became a bigger part of European economies.  In colonial America, meanwhile, it was not only a key to the growing economy, but also a major factor in the burgeoning African slave trade.

Cigars became the tobacco source of choice during the 19th century, followed by a huge cigarette boom in the 20th century, driven largely by the two world wars. Between 1930 and 1979 consumption of cigarettes in the United States almost tripled, increasing from 972 to 2,775 cigarettes per person per year.

In 1930, researchers in Cologne, Germany, made a statistical correlation between cancer and smoking. Eight years later, Dr. Raymond Pearl of Johns Hopkins University reported that smokers do not live as long as non-smokers.

By 1944, the American Cancer Society began to warn about possible ill effects of smoking, although it admitted that "no definite evidence exists" linking smoking and lung cancer.

In 1952, Reader's Digest published "Cancer by the Carton," an article detailing the dangers of smoking. Similar reports began appearing in other magazines and newspapers and the following year, cigarette sales declined for the first time in more than two decades.

The cigarette industry responded by marketing filtered and low-tar brands and sales picked up again.

But in 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General’s office came out with its landmark report concluding, in unequivocal terms, that “cigarette smoking is causally related to lung cancer in men” and that the evidence pointed in the same direction for women.

The report didn’t mince words.  The average smoker, it said, was nine to 10 times more likely to get lung cancer than the average non-smoker.

More Slices of History

1st U.S. Insane Asylum:  Oct. 12, 1773

Thalidomide Goes on Market: Oct. 1, 1957

Penicillin Discovered: Sept. 28, 1928

Discovery of Bacteria: Sept. 17, 1683

1st U.S. Incubator Baby: Sept. 7: 1888