Tobacco: Drinking the Weed

A number of lawsuits against the Tobacco Industry have recently been reported. Many claim that the Tobacco Industry lied about the effects of smoking and covered up negative research results that proved smoking was addictive and directly linked to throat and lung cancer.

I was curious about how much the public knew about the effects of tobacco and when they knew it. The results of our investigation were a bit surprising to say the least.

Tobacco: An American original

First, a little history about Tobacco. Tobacco is a New World product and was used by Natives in North America for thousands of years. When Christopher Columbus showed up in the New World, he first noted tobacco on Oct 15, 1492, only 3 days after landing in the New World. Columbus noted that he witnessed a canoe filled with dried leaves with medical usefulness. His crew found “Indians” in modern Cuba drinking the weed, the term they used for smoking. Some of Columbus’ crew took up smoking and introduced tobacco to Spain and Portugal.

Tobacco was first adopted as a medicine. Tobacco cultivation spread throughout Europe as a cure-all for all sorts of diseases.

  • 1560 D. Johannes Nicotius of Nismes, counselor to Francis, the second King of France, introduces the tobacco plant to France
  • 1586 Sir Francis Drake introduced the tobacco plant to England.

Opposition to Tobacco was early and fairly accurate. None less than King James writes against tobacco in the 1600s!

  • 1602 English doctor warned about tobacco
  • 1604 King James of the United Kingdom wrote against tobacco in an article “A Counterblaste to Tobacco.” His article destroyed the arguments of those that supported tobacco use from both a medical and entertainment perspective. The last paragraph of his lengthy articles states:

“.. A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse.”

  • 1638 Only 17 years after the Mayflower brought the first Pilgrims to New England, Massachusetts passed the first law restricting the use of tobacco in the New World. They banmed it as a fire hazard. However, they all used the term “tobacco-takers” in association with lazy and unproductive people.
  • 1647  Connecticut restricted tobacco use because of health reasons, stinking smell, and the type of people who used it were unproductive. Tobacco was only approved by a Physick (Physician) for those new to tobacco. Those who were already addicted were allowed one use per day and not in public and not in the company of others. Travelers could use tobacco once they were 16 miles away.

However the myth of tobacco health benefits were pushed by a fast growing industry. These myths continued until the 1920’s!  

  • 1659 A book by Dr. Everard called “Panacea; or The Universal Medicine, being a discovery of the Wonderful Virtues of Tobacco taken in a Pipe, with its operation and use both in Physic (meaning treatment with medicine) and Surgery (meaning treatment by procedures).”

In the book, Dr. Everard explained how Tobacco spread in the Old World because of it’s wonderful healing powers.  He extolled the virtues of tobacco in it’s ability in helping one stay alert, allowing someone to sleep, relief from toothaches, curing various stomach problems, healing cuts, etc.  He warned against excessive use. Many of the positive claims Dr. Everard made were addressed 55 years earlier in King James’ article.

Ironically, he wriote the book “to all the worthy Merchants and Planters of Tobacco, for and in the West-Indies and America.”  Dr. Everard books reads like modern day arguments for the use marijuana.

In contrast, as time passes the anti-tobacco science accumulates and by 1850, the medical community settled the case the against tobacco.

  • 1720 “A dissertation on the use and abuse of tobacco in relation to smoaking, chewing, and taking of snuff”  was published in London. Cancer was not mentioned.
  • 1828 Nicotine was isolated from tobacco leaves by Posselt and Reimann.
  • 1846 is the first “modern medical” review of the serious negative health effects of smoking I could find. Dr. T. Laycock gave a report to the British Society for the Advancement of Science in 1846 “On some diseases resulting from the immoderate use of tobacco.” While Dr. Laycock did not mention cancer, he did mention chronic inflammation of the respiratory system and stomach.  The following year a book was published with Dr. Laycock’s findings as well as findings by a Mr. M Barral from the Paris Academy of Sciences who calls it an “energetic poison.”

By modern medical, I mean medical evidence based in modern science with documented case histories, animal experiments, statistics, etc.

  • 1847: The New England Medical Electic published on Tobacco and called its use a “disgusting vice.” It pointed out that tobacco was “injurious to the health of our young men”  and “nauseous to the senses of their non-smoking victims.”

The ultimate anti-smoking case: President Grant

President Ulysses S. Grant was the first major American whose throat cancer death was attributed to smoking and highly publicized. His doctor’s were convinced that he developed the cancer as a result of his cigar smoking habit. Much was written about his fight with cancer for example:

  • 1885 Mar 1 New York Times: An article headline “Sinking into the grave; Gen. Grant’s Friends give up hope”
  • 1885 Apr 18 The Daily Free Press: “The specialist who the microscopic examination of the throat tissue and whose report confirmed the diagnosis of cancer is Dr. George R. Elliott, and expert in this disease.” The press and public were highly interested in this story and were pressing the doctor’s to ensure the diagnosis was correct. One of the most remarkable aspects of this case was the use of biopsy. Gen. Grant’s cancer slides are still available for research use.
  • 1885 Apr 26 New York Times: “Gen. Grant not so well; his throat honeycombed with cancer cells”
  • 1885 May 14 New York Times: “Gen. Grant not so well … his throat had swollen considerably.” Also noted was the use of opiates and the alcohol injections to numb the pain.
  • 1885 Jul 23: President and Gen. Grant dies.
Grants death was used by schools, churches, and youth groups as a reason to avoid tobacco use.
1887 Nov 22 Clinton Evening News: “That young man smoking cigarettes and smoking cigars has no idea that he is getting for himself smoked liver. That young man has no idea that he has by early dissipation so depleted his energies that he will go into the battle only half armed.”
Anti-Smoking aids are widely released
I’ve found 4 widely released anti-smoking products in the late 1800s.  Here is Baco-Curo:

  • 1895 May 1st to Jul 11 – Baco-Curo ad campaign was in numerous major newspapers “Do you want to stop tobacco? You can be cured while using it. The habit of using tobacco grows on a man until grave diseased conditions are produced. Tobacco causes cancer of the mouth and stomach, dyspepsia, loss of memory, nervous affections, congestion of the retina and wasting of the optic nerve.  … palpitation and weakened pulse, resulting in fatal heart disease. It also causes loss of vitality.  QUIT BEFORE IT IS TO LATE.”  The Daily Argus News
  • 1897 Mar 29 – Reading Eagle reported on a meeting where the Rev. Bromley spoke to the “Boy’s Brigade. The young men who joined the Boy’s Brigade were sworn to abstain from liquor, tobacco, and vulgar language.  He mentioned an interesting story from the famous evangelist D.L. Moody.
The fight against tobacco should have been won, but addiction is not so easily defeated. The cost of tobacco was decreasing.

1887 Cigarette manufacturing was fully mechanized, dramatically lowering costs. Lower costs resulted in a truly mass market product. Until this point, many of the most serious tobacco problems such as lung cancer, were limited to those who could afford to use high quantities of tobacco.

1898 May 12 – Dubuque Daily and many other newspapers published articles on “The Deadly Cigarette.” Due to the low cost of cigarettes and the packs per day habits of cigarette users, most anti-tobacco campaigns began to focus on cigarettes. Doctors noticed a mass health crisis developing and began to directly claim that smoking causes cancer.

1903 Aug 28 – Mr. Thomas Edison (yes, THE Thomas Edison) stated “Friction sometimes tended to destroy the cells, as in cases of smoker’s cancer of the mouth.” St. John Daily Sun

1906 Dec 15 – “Habitual smokers are often troubled with inflammation of the throat.  … If nothing is done to prevent it, the disease may develop into cancer of the throat.” The Daily Tribune

Doctor’s speculated that the rapid rise in smoker’s cancer was due to tobacco irritating tissue in the mouth, throat, and lungs. Tobacco companies responded in the 1920’s with cigarettes that were less irritating and smoother and thus, presumably healthier or at least safe.

1912 Apr 13 St. Petersburg Times: Sadly, Ulysses Grant’s son also died of throat cancer. “It was learned from outside authoritive force today that General Frederick Grant died of cancer of the throat.” Like his famous father, Frederick Grant was a heavy cigar smoker. His family at first denied he had died of throat cancer.




The Tobacco Industry responded with irritation free cigarettes while the negative health effects of cigarettes continued to pile up

1925 – The filtered cigarette was invented. It stayed a specialty item until 1952 when the Kent brand launched a variety.

Working for the assumption that cancer was caused by irritation and inflammation, the tobacco industry started to develop cigarettes that were supposed to cause less irritation.  Lucky strikes in particular, used doctors in their ads as shown below. They also used words like clean, fresh, and healthy to convince cigarette smokers that they were not damaging their bodies.

1929 Jan 22 – Lucky Strike ad in the Evening Independent claiming their cigarettes are healthy and keep you thin. They also claim that 20,679 physicians have stated that Luckies are less irritating to the throat than other cigarettes.

Lucky was the most popular cigarette in the US in 1930 with more than 40 billion cigarette sold.

June 4, 1930 – “Protracted use of tobacco was called the principal though remote cause of mouth cancer at the meeting today of the Dauphin county medical society.” Prescott Evening Courier

January 6, 1931 – “Mouth cancers are largely preventable, since they are chiefly due to bad teeth and excessive use of tobacco.” Spokane Daily Chronical

Jan 7, 1937 – “It is now recognized that throats and vocal cords of some persons may be especially sensitive to various ingredients of tobacco smoke.” The Pittsburgh Press

October 29, 1935 – Excessive smoking may cause stomach ulcers.  New York Times

The Medical community then had to figure out if the low irritation cigarettes reduced or eliminated lung cancer. By 1950 cancer will be firmly tied to tobacco.

January 18, 1938 – Dr. Morris Fishbein, Editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, stated “The exact effects of tobacco on health are not very well understood. Probably the agitators against tobacco have greatly overemphasized the harmfulness of smoking and those who favor its use have under emphasized its dangers.”  “Cancer of the mouth is more frequent among men than among women. It is believed that its greater prevalence among men is associated with the larger amount of smoking done by men.” San Jose News

September 11, 1939 – Dr. Angel H. Roffo of Buenos Aries told the 3rd international cancer congress that tar from nine varieties of tobacco caused cancer in rabbits. Tobacco tar was painted on the skin of shaven rabbits and 100% developed cancer. The worst tobacco or “most active” was from Turkey, Egypt, and “twist tobaccos.”  “It is estimated that in 10 years the average smoker applies more than eight liters of tar to the mucosa of his respiratory track.” Milwaukee Journal

March 14, 1940 – Mayor LaGuardia, New York City, used plug tobacco, because his doctors advised him to give up smoking. Palm Beach Daily News

July 25, 1940 – Tobacco companies were accused of being in a trust with price fixing and monopoly against 34 tobacco companies and 33 individuals. I put this note in because it shows the close cooperation between the tobacco companies. Their unified front would prove effective in limiting anti-smoking laws and taxes.

October 10, 1940 – Drs. Chevalier Jackson and his son of Philadelphia asserted in a report that “Oil in tobacco smoke was another suspected cause of (larynx) cancer …”  Drs. Jackson found the disease “much more common in men than women,” and said that the extent of tobacco oil’s effects on the larynx would be better known in the next decade due to the increase in smoking among women. The Evening Independent

Oct 28, 1941 – 4 tobacco firms and 13 executives were convicted under the Sherman anti-trust Act.

May 7, 1942 – Tobacco heir R.J. Reynolds “was too ill with a lung ailment, but he left shortly afterwards on an around-the-world cruise.  He brought his oxygen supply with him to court Tuesday and Wednesday.”  He was going through a messy divorce with his 4th wife.

October 17, 1943 – Donald M. Nelson, for VP of Sears Roebuck and WWII War Production Board Chairman, presented Premier Stalin with a huge pipe.

July 16, 1948 – Dr. Alton Oshsner, head of the department of surgery at Tulane university, didn’t smoke. He stated the reason why: “I’ve found in the last 20 years that the incidence of cancer of the lung has soared upward in a line parallel with that of the cigaret sales chart. There is no conclusive proof that smoking causes cancer of the lung. But I’ll tell you this. I don’t smoke. I’m afraid to.”

October 24, 1949 – Dr. Evarts A Graham, professor of surgery at Washington University of St. Louis, told 100 delegates from South America, Mexico, and Cuba that recent studies showed that lung cancer has displaced cancer of the stomach as the most frequent site of the disease in the internal organs of men. Graham said there was every indication that excessive cigaret smoking was an important factor, a theory advanced several years ago.  But he said it was felt that other causes, as yet unknown, also were contributing to the increase.

July 18, 1950 – Cancer tied to tobacco. Dr. Morton L. Levin told the Fifth International Cancer Conference that a study of 7,000 patients had been done in New York State. He stated that 14 out of 1,000 smokers developed lung cancer vs. 6 out of 1,000 non-smokers.

The public was informed widely about the problems with smoking tobacco

1952 December – Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine published an article on the negative effects of cigaret smoking. They state “we know that the ads are phony …”


1953 Dec 21 – Life magazine published an article on smoking in the same issue. The editorial about the article stated “Cigaret smoking became universally acceptable in this country comparatively recently. In the days of our youth our elders claimed that cigarets (even cubebs) would not only stunt your growth but inevitably lead to wishy-washiness of character. The railroad mogul E.H. Harriman (Averell’s papa), once thundered “We might as well go to the insane asylum for our men as to employ cigaret smokers.”  The article makes the connection between lung cancer in lab mice and cigarets. A leading doctor makes the prediction that by 1970, 18% of all cancer will be lung cancer.

It is really amazing how US Magazine published very tough articles against smoking while at the same time excepting a huge amount of ad money from the tobacco companies. For example: here are two cigarette ads (Old Gold and Lucky Strike) in the same Life Magazine issue as the article pictured above.



There were 6 ads for tobacco products in the issue.

Worried about all the bad medical news, the Tobacco Industry embarks on significant research effort

As many of the medical reports were issued, the press reported on the possible effects on tobacco stocks and tobacco use.

Mar 10, 1954 – The Canadian Tobacco Industry provided $100K for cancer research to the National Cancer Institute of Canada after concerns about reports from the United States and United Kingdom indicated a larger number of cancer sufferers among smokers vs. non-smokers.  Ottawa Citizen

June 11, 1956 Life Magazine published major article on the “New Cigaret-Cancer Link”.



June 4, 1957 – American Cancer Society report found lung cancer deaths 1000 per cent higher in smokers than nonsmokers.

July 18, 1957 – Congressional Investigation on the link between cigarets, as they were called then, and lung cancer.

Dr. Clarence Cook Little, chairman of the scientific advisory board to the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, testified research findings “disprove a single, simple, striking cause and effect relationship between cigaret smoking and lung cancer.”

Dr. E Cuyler Hammond, spokesman for the American Cancer Society, testified that in his opinion “the evidence is overwhelming” that cigaret smoking is one cause of lung cancer. Dr. Hammond also testified that pipe and cigar smokers have a better life expectancy than cigaret smokers.

1962 Dec – Kiplinger’s Personal Finance published an article on “Cigaret ads: A study in irresponsibility”.

1963 Cigarette manufacturer Brown and Williamson had their own research that showed nicotine is addictive.  Their research was not released publicly.

The medical industry had a problem in that they could not PROVE that smoking caused lung cancer.

The cause for cancer was searched for as researchers searched for the reason for most diseases. We all know someone who has smoked for years and not “caught” cancer. Did this person have immunity to a tobacco virus that protected them from lung cancer? We now know cancer is a disease caused by damaged DNA. However, DNA was only discovered in 1953. Researchers could not find a tobacco virus or bacteria that was directly causing cancer and they had no way to witness DNA damage. So while statistics overwhelmingly convicted tobacco as a cancer causing substance, there was no known mechanism by which it caused cancer. Thus the tobacco industry was able to claim, no matter how ridiculous, that statistically speaking that it was not known if tobacco caused cancer.

  • Jan 11, 1964 – Panel concluded smoking cigarettes is a health hazard. Organizations contributing to the report include: US Surgeon General, American Cancer Society, American Heart, National Tuberculosis Assn, American Public Health Assn, US Public Health Service, British Ministry of Health, and the Royal College of Physicians.

The Panel’s report was published in numerous US newspapers – many papers provided full page coverage. The Miami News published ALL 150,000 words and the photographs of the panel members.

  • 1964 Jan 24 – Life magazine covered the Jan 11 panel report

  • March 25, 1965 – The tobacco industry fought warning labels on cigarette advertising and packages. “The public already has been inundated with warnings”, Bowman Gray, board chairman of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., told the Senate Committee. “Besides,” he said, “many distinguished scientists … are of the opinion that it has not been established that smoking causes lung cancer or any other diseases.”
  • Dr. Thomas H. Burford, professor of thoracic surgery at Washington University in St. Louis, told the committee he did not believe that lung cancer was caused by cigarette smoking and “I do not believe that smoking is responsible for any shortening of life.”
  • 1965 – The UK banned cigarette advertising on TV
  • 1965 Sep 28 – Dr. Mitchell, director of the Webb Wearing Institute of Medical Research, Colorado University School of Medicine said that 200,000 Americans were dying every year because they smoked.
  • 1969 – US required warning statement
  • 1969 Dec 19 Canadian Commons health committee proposed that cigarette advertising and promotion be stopped.
  • 1970 Oct 12 Horace Kornegay, President of the Tobacco Institute, said that the American Cancer Society’s report released on Feb 5th “may be one of the greatest hoaxes of our time.”  The report showed cancer development in dogs forced to inhale cigaret smoke.
  • Jan 11, 1979 US Government releases a 1,200 page report on smoking and health, finding that cigarette smoke was “the major cause” of lung cancer in America.
  • Jan 18, 1979 William Dwyer, vice president of the Tobacco Institute, told the reporters that the government had no proof. “The best Califano (Health, Education, and Welfare Secretary) can say, Dwyer insisted, is that smoking ‘may cause cancer.’ It may not.”
  • Jan 18, 1979 – FTC considered stronger message on cigarette advertising and packages.
  • Jan 18, 1979 – The Tobacco Institute attacked the American Lung Association’s (ALA) Christmas Seal campaign by saying it mislead the public because only a small percentage of the money raised was spent on medical research. They said less than $1M of a $50M budget was spent on research. The ALA agreed because it spent most of the money on public education, community services, and training doctors about lung diseases.
  • September 28, 1981 – the Tobacco Institute ran ads questioning a Japanese study that indicated that the wives of smokers ran an increase risk of lung cancer.
  • Mar 21, 1983 – Nine states hiked cigarette taxes.
  • October 14, 1983 – California and Washington State reported more women dying of lung cancer than breast cancer for the first time.
  • May 24, 1984 – The American Lung Association and US Surgeon General released reports on smoking. “Cigarette smoking is the major cause of chronic obstructive lung disease in the US for both men and women. The contribution of cigarette smoking … far outweighs all other factors.” Surgeon Gen. Dr. C. Everett Koop estimated that at least 60,000 Americans died the previous year of respiratory problems.  He also discussed 2nd hand smoke as experienced by children living with smoking parents.

Tobacco Institute’s spokesman William Toohey said, “It is only a rewrite of an opinion given 20 years ago. We believe the (surgeon general’s) report is based on conjecture.”  Toohey said he was unfamiliar with the industry memorandums quoted at the meeting and questioned their veracity. “I am not aware that tobacco industry has ever forced anyone to use their products.”

  • May 20, 1988 – The Surgeon General’s latest report stated that nicotine is as addictive as heroin or cocaine. The Tobacco Institute’s Brennan Moran responded “Claims that cigarettes are addictive contradict common sense.” Ms. Moran also said “Smoking is truly a personal choice that can be stopped if and when a person decides to do so.”
  • November 1998 – California voters increased cigarette taxes by 25 cents per pack and required 20% of the tax money be spent on cessation programs. Nevada also adopted a 25 cent per pack increase.
  • Jan 20, 1989 – Dr. Andrew Selwyn reported that they have the first evidence directly linking smoking and heart disease. Gary Miller, a spokesman for the Tobacco Institute disputed that saying “This is not enough evidence to make such a claim.”  He cited the small size of the study: 24 smokers.
  • Dec 13, 1990 – Tobacco Industry said they support a national legal smoking age of 18, supervision of cigarette vending machines near minors, and aids to parents to help their children resist “peer-group pressure” to smoke.
  • 1992 Cigarette manufacturer Brown & Williamson had 1,384 documents stolen by a Louisville paralegal employee. These papers, according to a team from the University of California at San Francisco, showed that the company had a “sophisticated understanding” of the addictive properties of nicotine as long ago as 1963.
  • March 14, 1994 – ABC’s “Day One” showed for the first time in detail that the tobacco industry spikes cigarettes with nicotine.
  • Dec 14, 1994 – Rep. Martin Meehan said he had given Attorney General Janet Reno evidence of a criminal cover up by the tobacco industry in an 107 page memo.
  • July 14, 1995 – The American Medical Association published papers that it claims were proof that “One of the world’s leading cigarette companies lied over a three-decade period about its own scientific evidence on the dangers of smoking, nicotine’s addictiveness and the dangers of ‘secondhand’ cigarette smoke.” Deseret News
  • June 1998 – Tobacco industry fought off far-reaching federal legislation, which would have swiftly raised cigarette prices and restricted cigarette advertising and marketing. Milwaukee Journal
  • November 1998 – Tobacco industry settled three dozen state lawsuits with a $240 billion settlement. Milwaukee Journal

In Conclusion

It is clear that the public has known about the serious negative health effects of tobacco since King James first wrote about them in 1604. One report discussed how the public has been inundated with anti-smoking messages. You have to wonder why people chose to smoke with the abundant availability of information and how they are swayed by ads selling a deadly product that they pay for!

It is equally clear that the tobacco industry has tried to confuse the medical issues in the early centuries by promoting crazy homeopathic solutions. Then confusing again in the 1920’s through 1980’s by implying some cigarette offerings are safe or safer and finally, by mocking good research and refusing to accept statistical evidence in the most recent decades.

It is also clear that nicotine is an extremely addictive substance and once people start smoking, it is very hard to stop even with the full knowledge that tobacco is a very dangerous substance.

All the best,
John McDonald