History of tobacco

The leaf that travelled the world

Tobacco, a native plant of the Americas,  was first discovered thousands of years ago

However, growing tobacco as a crop was pioneered by communities in the Andes at a much later time. Most estimates put this between 5000 and 3000 BC.

From the Andes of South America tobacco spread north and then on to the colonies, islands and continents beyond. With steadily increasing demand tobacco plants were transported for cultivation to countries all over the world.

The history of tobacco is more than just a history of its cultivation for chewing or smoking. It represents a fascinating journey through changing tastes and fashions, variations in cultural status and different stages of political and trading importance.

It also takes in numerous other lesser-known uses. South American tribes, for example, used it as an insect repellent, and many early civilizations incorporated its use into sacred rites.

How it was used

Tobacco chewing was probably the first way that tobacco was consumed.

Anthropologists have also speculated that ‘snuffing’ – taking in powdered tobacco through the nose – probably pre-dated smoking. Snuffing tubes are among the earliest tobacco artifacts discovered in the Americas.

The early Spanish explorers were probably the first Europeans to try smoking tobacco leaf. They wrapped leaf in corn husk to produce the forerunner of the cigarette. Cigars are typically larger in size, and are wrapped in the tobacco leaf itself.

As well as smoking tobacco, Spanish explorers cultivated plants in botanical gardens as a medicinal curiosity.

Political significance

Inevitably, as the use and cultivation of tobacco grew so did its political and financial significance. The colonies where tobacco was grown became highly valuable territories, attracting settlers keen to make their fortunes despite often hostile conditions.

An example is the state of Virginia in the United States. In the short period between 1618 and 1640 the annual size of the tobacco harvest in Virginia rose from 20,000 pounds to 1.5 million pounds. The tobacco trade contributed to the population growing from 18,000 to 78,000 during that time.

It was not only growers and manufacturers of tobacco products who sought financial gain from tobacco. Elizabeth I of England introduced a tobacco tax at two old pence (less than one penny) per pound. King Philip III of Spain tried to control cultivation by decreeing tobacco could only be grown in Spanish colonies.

Fashion and debate

Today, tobacco is a highly regulated product and attracts considerable debate. It has been the subject of contrasting opinions, and fashions, throughout its history.

For example, taking a pinch of snuff was made popular in Regency England by Beau Brummell. He introduced it to the Prince of Wales, making it popular in Royal circles and then among the population at large.

Some monarchs enjoyed it (Queen Charlotte – wife of George III of England – was known as ‘Snuffy' Charlotte). Others disliked it. The first English anti-smoking pamphlet, A Counterblaste to Tobacco, was published in 1602.

It’s against the backdrop of this rich history that JTI operates today.

Our business, which has a rich history of its own, is run successfully and ethically – building on sound principles and positions that guide everyone who works in the company – so that those adults who do smoke can have the highest quality products from the most reputable, reliable source.

We believe the history of tobacco is still being written.


Queen Elizabeth I of England taxed tobacco at two old pennies per pound