A brief history of tobacco
(CNN) -- Tobacco was first used by the peoples of the
pre-Columbian Americas. Native Americans apparently
cultivated the plant and smoked it in pipes for medicinal and
Christopher Columbus brought a few tobacco leaves and seeds
with him back to Europe, but most Europeans didn't get their
first taste of tobacco until the mid-16th century, when
adventurers and diplomats like France's Jean Nicot -- for
whom nicotine is named -- began to popularize its use.
Tobacco was introduced to France in 1556, Portugal in 1558,
and Spain in 1559, and England in 1565.
The first successful commercial crop was cultivated in
Virginia in 1612 by Englishman John Rolfe. Within seven
years, it was the colony's largest export. Over the next two
centuries, the growth of tobacco as a cash crop fueled the
demand in North America for slave labor.
At first, tobacco was produced mainly for pipe-smoking,
chewing, and snuff. Cigars didn't become popular until the
early 1800s. Cigarettes, which had been around in crude form
since the early 1600s, didn't become widely popular in the
United States until after the Civil War, with the spread of
"Bright" tobacco, a uniquely cured yellow leaf grown in
Virginia and North Carolina. Cigarette sales surged again
with the introduction of the "White Burley" tobacco leaf and
the invention of the first practical cigarette-making
machine, sponsored by tobacco baron James Buchanan "Buck"
Duke, in the late 1880s.
The negative health effects of tobacco were not initially
known; in fact, most early European physicians subscribed to
the Native American belief that tobacco can be an effective
By the early 20th century, with the growth in cigarette
smoking, articles addressing the health effects of smoking
began to appear in scientific and medical journals. In 1930,
researchers in Cologne, Germany, made a statistical
correlation between cancer and smoking. Eight years later,
Dr. Raymond Pearl of Johns Hopkins University reported that
smokers do not live as long as non-smokers. By 1944, the
American Cancer Society began to warn about possible ill
effects of smoking, although it admitted that "no definite
evidence exists" linking smoking and lung cancer.
A statistical correlation between smoking and cancer had been
demonstrated; but no causal relationship had been shown.
More importantly, the general public knew little of the
growing body of statistics.
That changed in 1952, when Reader's Digest published "Cancer
by the Carton," an article detailing the dangers of smoking.
The effect of the article was enormous: Similar reports began
appearing in other periodicals, and the smoking public began
to take notice. The following year, cigarette sales declined
for the first time in over two decades.
The tobacco industry responded swiftly. By 1954 the major
U.S. tobacco companies had formed the Tobacco Industry
Research Council to counter the growing health concerns.
With counsel from TIRC, tobacco companies began
mass-marketing filtered cigarettes and low-tar formulations
that promised a "healthier" smoke. The public responded, and
soon sales were booming again.
The next big blow to the tobacco industry came in the early
1960s, with the formation of the Surgeon General's Advisory
Committee on Smoking and Health. Convened in response to
political pressures and a growing body of scientific evidence
suggesting a causal relationship between smoking and cancer,
the committee released a 387-page report in 1964 entitled
"Smoking and Health." In unequivocal terms, it concluded
that "cigarette smoking is causally related to lung cancer in
men." It said that the data for women, "though less
extensive, point in the same direction." The report noted
that the average smoker is nine to 10 times more likely to
get lung cancer than the average non-smoker and cited
specific carcinogens in cigarette smoke, including cadmium,
DDT, and arsenic.
The tobacco industry has been on the run -- albeit profitably
-- ever since. In 1965, Congress passed the Federal
Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act requiring the surgeon
general's warnings on all cigarette packages. In 1971, all
broadcast advertising was banned. In 1990, smoking was
banned on all interstate buses and all domestic airline
flights lasting six hours or less. In 1994, Mississippi
filed the first of 22 state lawsuits seeking to recoup
millions of dollars from tobacco companies for smokers'
Medicaid bills. And in 1995, President Clinton announced FDA
plans to regulate tobacco, especially sales and advertising
aimed at minors.
Tobacco has been around longer than the United States, and a
causal relationship between smoking and cancer has been
acknowledged by the U.S. government for over three decades.
So why has it taken so long for the tobacco industry to be
forced to settle lawsuits over the dangers of cigarettes?
Previous lawsuits went nowhere. Tobacco companies, with deep
pockets for legal maneuvering, easily beat back early suits,
including the first one, filed in 1954. Their most serious
challenge before the 1990s came in 1983, when Rose Cipollone,
a smoker dying from lung cancer, filed suit against Liggett
Group, charging the company failed to warn her about the
dangers of its products. Cipollone, who eventually died,
initially won a $400,000 judgment against the company, but
that was later overturned. After two arguments before the
Supreme Court, Cipollone's family, unable to afford the cost
of continued litigation, dropped the suit.
Now, however, tobacco companies face a different legal
environment. Over the past three decades, the law has changed
Today, state laws and legal precedents hold manufacturers
more liable for the effects of their products. And the old
legal defense of "contributing negligence" -- which prevented
lawsuits by people with some measure of responsibility for
their own condition -- is no longer viable in most
jurisdictions. Instead, a defendant can be held partially
liable and forced to pay a corresponding percentage of
damages. Finally, the notion of "strict" liability has
developed; this means a defendant can be found liable whether
or not they are found negligent. If a product such as
tobacco causes harm, the company that produced it can be held
responsible, even if it wasn't aware of the potential danger.