Plant 95

Nicotiana tabacum L. (Solanaceae)



Tobacco is so enmeshed in European life that mythology, memory and marketing would have us believe we have used it since antiquity. However, Europeans have been addicted to tobacco for little over half a millennium, although in its native South America, people used it for many millennia before Europeans discovered the Americas.

The French explorer Jacques Cartier described how the people of Lawrence River used tobacco to 'fill their bodies full of smoke', whilst Montezuma was vilified for smoking tobacco. By the 1560s, the diplomat Jean Nicot had introduced tobacco to the French Court, soon afterwards, the fashionable elite became addicted and the habit diffused across Europe. Tobacco or drunkwort was the first botanical luxury to have a global market and rapidly become a global currency.

Carolus Linnaeus immortalised Nicot in the generic name Nicotiana, whilst the addictive chemical isolated from tobacco in 1828 was christened nicotine. Nicotine, a powerful insect neurotoxin, is one of many chemicals produced by tobacco that evolved to deter pests. The genus Nicotiana comprises some 70 species, the majority of which are from the Americas. The main species used for tobacco production are Nicotiana tabacum, known only from cultivation, and Nicotiana rustica, native to southwest Ecuador and Bolivia.

Curing oxidises, degrades and transforms the chemical cocktail inside tobacco leaves into the flavours and aromas used by tobacco industries to promote their products. Tobacco is consumed in numerous, often ritualistic, manners ranging from smoking cigarettes and cigars through snorting as snuff to chewing.

Since its adoption as a global drug, tobacco has probably killed more of us than any other plant on the planet. Tobacco, the third most addictive (after heroin and cocaine) and fourteenth most harmful commonly used drug also traps governments. Countries that benefit from billions of pounds of tobacco-based tax revenues or exports are in the invidious position of tobacco dependency, as are many long-term financial instruments. Even the regal tobacco critic, James I of England, became seduced by the financial rewards that could be made from tobacco. Two generations after Sir Richard Doll first synthesised the evidence tobacco was a killer, tobacco companies have reluctantly accepted its harmful effects.

Tobacco has also been used as a medicine and insecticide. Scientifically, it was the nineteenth-century model for understanding plant hybridisation, whilst during the twentieth century it was used to understand fundamental plant biology. In 1982, tobacco was the first artificially genetically modified plant.

Further reading

Chase MW et al. 2003. Molecular systematic, GISH and the origin of the hybrid taxa in Nicotiana (Solanaceae). Annals of Botany 92: 107-127.

Eriksen M et al. 2012. The tobacco atlas. American Cancer Society, Inc.

Gately I 2001. Tobacco: a cultural history of how an exotic plant seduced civilization. Simon & Schuster.

Stephen Harris