It is the most farmed non-foodstuff in the world and by planting it we sow to consume and end up wasting away. It is one of the most addictive substances, causing the death of 5.4 million people a year through lung cancer, heart disease and other illnesses in the world. Continuing this pattern, it is predicted that by 2030 the figures will rise to 8 million annually.
In spite of everything it is a very profitable poison and has been present throughout history in many diverse ways. It started out as an indigenous remedy, and was also a symbol of peace (the peace pipe), a unit currency, financer of revolutions, a victim of colonisation…and prey of industry that was transformed into the leaves in cigarettes, with chemical additives and years later triggered a large health crisis.
A third of the adult population smoke; the problem is that a cigarette is not made only of tobacco. When a smoker takes a drag, they are inhaling 4000 chemical substances that go directly to their lungs. Acetone, formaldehyde, pesticides, heavy metals, arsenic, cadmium, chrome, glycerol, carbon dioxide and ammonia are some of these elements, without forgetting that during the burning process the toxicity of these is multiplied.
When we introduce smoke in our lungs, the defence systems lose efficiency and all these components that are burned in a cigarette spread the poison to whichever organ. Nicotine is the substance in the original plant and the key to its commercial success. The pleasure is added to thanks to dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. It also has an effect on ones mood, by reducing the appetite and altering the chemical structure of the smoker.
For those, the brain then goes on to activate more nicotine receptors than necessary, and so the body wants more nicotine and the smoker satisfies the craving…by smoking. Otherwise, the smoker will feel ill, irritable, angry, depressed…In other words they will suffer from withdrawal symptoms, that in some cases can appear even in as little as an hour.
A little history
As much as the tobacco itself, money also provokes addiction in certain individuals, and this is what happened centuries back, then started to become a very valuable treasure for the South American colonisors. When Christopher Columbus and his men arrived in Cuba in 1482, they discovered this plant that the indigenous people would inhale, drink, rub on themselves…and smoke.
Nothing like this existed in Europe and the Portuguese and Spanish sailors adopted this habit that soon reached the whole of the European continent, under the practical argument that it was an effective cure for all types of pain and disease.
In part it was, then the failures of the British colonization in South America were changed drastically with this discovery: at the end of the 17th century the Spanish conquistadors managed to keep hold of their first colonies and import more than 9 million kilos of colonial tobacco a year. Of course, they weren’t the only ones that benefited from the cultivation. In fact, the American revolution was financed by tobacco.
However, the purity and mildness of tobacco were driven out, when it started to become commercialised in the form of the cigarette only a century later. It was a matter of time before it would trigger health problems in the population. When the first cigarettes to be launched in the market, they were aware of the damages of this, but they kept it a secret so as not to relinquish their opportunity to make themselves rich. In the 19th century, people were already buying tobacco involved with Spain, but the first industrial machine to produce cigarettes hadn’t been invented until the end of the century.
The cinema was a spark for spreading the demand, showing a sophisticated image of the habit on the big screen. Even the packets that cigarettes were sold in were accompanied by photo cards of famous actors and actresses.
The good and the bad
There is no doubt that the tobacco industry is paradox. It is the cause of death for more than 5 million people a year in the world and the main reason for preventable death in rich countries.
However, the tobacco industry pays 100,000 million dollars in taxes alone each year, it is the chief source of income for countries like Brazil (the main exporter in the world), generating millions of jobs in different sectors and processes of world production. New technology, instead of using it to reduce the harmful effects of tobacco, has only served to spare the hand of the working man.
The European Union created an Agreement for the anti-tobacco fight that is trying to eliminate tobacco subsidies. But its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidises 40% of the tobacco industry in Italy, 35% in Greece and 12% in Spain.
Nevertheless, the European Union has developed a series of measures in the commercialisation of tobacco: it has imposed the labels (that has served as precedent in other countries) and has managed to reduce the quantity of tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide in cigarettes. Furthermore, they have exercised strong pressure concerning the publicity of tobacco products.
The planet, as a passive smoker, is also a victim of the harmful effects of tobacco. Curing the leaves is one of the processes that is most damaging to the environment. During this process a large bonfire is made. It is calculated that for every hectare of tobacco, 7.8 kilos of wood is needed. And we cannot forget the cigarette paper. According to the World Health Organisation, 5.5 billion cigarettes are consumed a year. Each one containing 16cm2 of paper.
Therefore the amount of the A4 leaves is equivalent to almost 95,000,000,000 leaves of A4 paper wrapped, inhaled and exhaled into the air as the product of combustion. What is certain is that tobacco, being liked, vetoed, enacted, discredited and objected, in general, in a fight that allows it to remain despite its devastating effects, it doesn’t seem to be a product that is going to ever disappear. Beyond the lungs, there are interests in it that no-one wants give up.
(Translated by Nykhil Emanuel-Stanford)