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Nicotine was isolated from tobacco leaves (Nicotiana tabacum) in 1828, but the powerful effects of nicotine were already well recognized. The tobacco plant is native to the Americas and its use as a medicine and stimulant goes back at least 2000 years and most likely many millennia before that. South American temple carvings show Mayan priests enjoying the benefits of this drug from smoking tobacco through a pipe. Tobacco appears to part of the healing arts and sacred rituals of many of the native peoples of the Americas. (Image:Aztec women are handed flowers and smoking tubes before eating at a banquet, Florentine Codex, 16th century.)

Use in Europe and the American Colonies

There are various theories of how tobacco was introduced to Europe, but Christopher Columbus and his crews undoubtedly sampled this native weed and succumbed to its spell. Once introduced into Europe, tobacco for use in pipes and as cigars spread rapidly. Some thought it was powerful medicine and might even cure the Plague, while others saw it as an evil and nasty habit.

By the early 1600s tobacco had become an important cash crop exported to Europe by the new colonies in North America. Some historians believe the colonies would not have prospered without the money from this toxic crop. Tobacco is a demanding crop to grow, and as tobacco farming spread south there was a growing demand for workers. In the 1700s tobacco plantation farmers began importing African slaves to work the tobacco farms. Tobacco became important not only for local economies, but also for national governments as soon as it became apparent that one could tax the people's habit.

The Invention of Cigarettes

It took many years to refine and develop tobacco consumption as a means of drug delivery. Tobacco consumption was initially confined to chewing or smoking with a pipe or cigar. Cigarettes were invented in 1614 by beggars in Seville, Spain, who collected scraps of cigars and rolled the tobacco into small pieces of paper. Cigarette consumption grew gradually in popularity, but cigarettes were expensive to produce until 1880, when a machine to roll cigarettes was patented. This invention ushered in cheaper cigarettes and major tobacco corporations. Sir Walter Raleigh popularized pipe smoking in England. He was beheaded on October 28, 1618, but before his head dropped he requested to smoke a final bowlful of tobacco. (Image: James Albert Bonsack's cigarette rolling machine, invented in 1880 and patented in 1881.)

The Beginnings of Regulation

The undesirable health effects of tobacco consumption were not entirely unrecognized. By 1890, 26 states had passed laws banning the sale of cigarettes to minors. Cigarette consumption increased steadily, spurred along by both world wars and relentless marketing by the tobacco companies. In 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report linking smoking with lung cancer and heart disease, which triggered a slow recognition among policy makers of the true cost of smoking and efforts to reduce consumption. It was not until 1994 that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration officially determined that nicotine was a dependency-producing drug. The U.S. Supreme Court subsequently ruled that the FDA could not regulate nicotine as a drug. However, all this attention did encourage legal action that resulted in the tobacco companies paying billions of dollars to cover health care costs of tobacco-related diseases. On June 22, 2009, President Obama signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, landmark legislation that gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate the manufacturing and marketing of tobacco. While tobacco consumption is declining in North America and parts of Europe, it continues to increase in many parts of the world.

Use as an Insecticide

The widespread personal consumption of nicotine is not its only role. In 1763 nicotine was first used as an insecticide. The potent nervous system effects of nicotine kill or deter insects; these are the same effects that attracted people to nicotine. Nicotine is extracted from tobacco leaves by steam or solvent treatment and then sprayed on vegetation where it comes in contact with and is readily absorbed by insects. Nicotine-based pesticides are no longer registered by the U.S. (EPA, 2008).

Next: Biological Properties of Nicotine

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