Tobacco is a tall, herbaceous plant the leaves of which are harvested,
cured, and rolled into cigars, shredded for use in cigarettes and pipes, and processed for
chewing or snuff. Tobacco is an important crop in almost all tropical countries as well as
in many temperate ones. The main source of commercial tobacco is Nicotiana tabacum,
although Nicotiana rustica is also grown and is used in oriental tobaccos. Growers have
developed a wide range of morphologically different types, from the small-leaved aromatic
tobaccos to the large, broad-leaved cigar tobaccos. The most practical means of
classifying them is by the method used for curing or drying the leaf.
Tobacco is native to the Americas, and the practice of inhaling the smoke of the dried plant material has been documented in the Mayan culture more than 2,000 years ago. The Mayans moved northward from Central America through the Aztec Empire and eventually took their customs to North American Indian tribes. The Arawak Indians of the Caribbean smoked tobacco; Christopher Columbus, during his 1492 voyage, found them smoking loosely rolled cigars. The Spanish took tobacco seeds to Europe, where Jean Nicot gave the plant its generic name, Nicotiana. Sir Walter Raleigh began the popularization of pipe smoking in Great Britain in 1586, and the cultivation and consumption of tobacco spread with each voyage of discovery from Europe.
Two kinds of tobacco were traded between Europe and America: Spanish, from the West Indies and South America, and Virginia, from what is now the state of Virginia. The Spaniards were the first Europeans to cultivate substantial amounts of tobacco. Despite its popularity in England, James I--who vehemently disapproved of tobacco--forbade its production there.
Europeans at first smoked their tobacco in PIPES, and later in cigars. Cigarettes spread in popularity only after the Crimean War (1854-56); their spread was aided by the development in the United States of the first cigarette-making machine in 1881 (see DUKE, JAMES BUCHANAN).
Unlike most other annual agricultural crops, tobacco has a small seed (1 oz=300,000 seeds), which cannot be sown directly in the field. Seedlings are raised in carefully selected and tended seedbeds where protection is given against heavy rain and excess sun. Young seedlings are planted out by hand or mechanical transplanter, and spacing between seedlings and rows varies with the kind of tobacco and with the location. The crop needs a minimum of 120 frost-free days and can be grown in a variety of soils.
Producing disease-resistant tobacco of acceptable quality is difficult, because the plant is susceptible to many diseases. Chemical control is now widely practiced, although the choice of chemicals is limited by the need to ensure that they do not taint the tobacco when it is smoked.
In the United States and Canada tobacco is often stalk-cut by machine, but in many parts of the world, it is still harvested leaf by leaf. Only a fully ripe leaf is used. After harvesting, leaves are tied together in pairs on curing sticks or strings.
Used mainly in the manufacture of cigarettes, flue-cured tobacco is lemon, orange, or mahogany in color, with a high sugar content and a medium-to-high nicotine content. Flue curing requires a closed building equipped with a system of ventilation and a source of heat. When heat and humidity are controlled, leaf color changes, moisture is quickly removed, and the leaf and stems dry.
This group includes the original air-cured tobaccos of South and Central America, the cigar tobaccos (subdivided into wrappers, binders, and fillers, depending on their use), and the burley tobaccos, an important component of American cigarettes. These have a low sugar content but vary in nicotine content. Air curing requires an open framework in which sticks of leaves (or whole plants) are hung, protected from wind and sun. Leaf color changes from green to yellow, as leaves and stems dry slowly.
Fire-cured tobacco, generally dark brown, is used mostly for pipe tobacco mixtures, snuff, and chewing tobacco and has a low sugar but high nicotine content. Fire curing employs an enclosed barn similar to that used for flue curing. Small fires are built on the floor, and the leaves cure in a smoke-laden atmosphere. Whereas flue curing takes 6 to 8 days, fire curing, using far lower temperatures, may take up to 4 weeks.
Sun curing is the drying of uncovered sticks or strings of leaf in the Sun. Of all Sun-cured tobaccos, the best known are the so-called oriental tobaccos of Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia, and nearby countries. These are used in cigarettes and have characteristic aromas. They are low in both sugar and nicotine.
GRADING AND AGING
After curing, the moisture content is standardized (the process is called redrying) to maintain the characteristics of the tobacco for the 12 to 18 months it is held prior to being used. (Oriental tobaccos are not redried; instead they are stored in small bales and allowed to ferment.) After storage, moisture is added and tobacco is blended to achieve the differing qualities needed for cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobaccos, snuff, or chewing tobacco.
China is the world's leading tobacco grower. The United States is a distant second, followed by India and Brazil. Italy, Indonesia, Turkey, Greece, and Zimbabwe are also major producers.
THE U.S. TOBACCO INDUSTRY
Some 130,000 U.S. farms grow tobacco, primarily in the southern states, and for many growers it constitutes their primary cash crop. The U.S. Department of Agriculture includes tobacco in its price support system, both because of its economic significance to the South--it is the seventh-largest U.S. cash crop--and because for many years it has been an important export commodity. American cigarette manufacturers also play a major part in the U.S. economy, earning millions from their domestic and their foreign sales.
Fears of the health effects of long-term use of tobacco (see SMOKING) cut per capita cigarette consumption in the United States by 30 percent between 1970 and 1990, with only 28 percent of the population--the lowest level ever measured--now counting themselves as smokers. Antismoking campaigns, health warnings on cigarette packets, and demands from nonsmokers for smoke-free environments have contributed to the diminishing numbers of smokers, as have state laws restricting smoking in public places and in workplaces. European countries have also enacted antismoking legislation. Britain has required health warnings on cigarette packs since 1971; Italy bans smoking in many public areas; France prohibits all cigarette advertising.
The tobacco industry has never publicly acknowledged a direct connection between the ingestion of tobacco smoke and the development of such ailments as lung cancer or cardiovascular disease. Although there have been injury suits against cigarette companies, no plaintiff has received damages for injuries suffered after 1969, the year warning labels were first required on cigarette packs. In 1992, however, the Supreme Court ruled that smokers could sue charging fraud if they could prove that a tobacco company concealed information about the hazards of smoking.
Nevertheless, the U.S. tobacco industry has maintained its prosperity, nourished by the millions of Americans who continue to use tobacco and by markedly increased consumption in Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Russia.
History - Cultivation - Aging - Curing - US Tobacco Industry
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