Hooked from the very first puffs Tobacco: Smoke-free Europe ended with Christopher Columbus' discovery of America and tobacco. He also discovered that his men couldn't seem to quit.

Sun Journal

August 29, 1996|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

When Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic for the first time, he discovered a native people who delighted in chewing and smoking the dried, pungent leaves of a plant unknown to Europe. Indians consumed them to enhance prayers, ward off illness, to relax.

Some of the crewmen indulged out of curiosity and found the leaves to their liking -- and did not stop. Columbus berated his men for succumbing to a custom that apparently repelled him. But he eventually relented, declaring: "It's not within their power to refrain from indulging in the habit."

Columbus had discovered the addictive powers of tobacco.

What he didn't know, of course, was that tobacco's magic was not just its taste but an ingredient that kept smokers hooked by stimulating pleasurable responses in the brain.

Today, we know the compound as nicotine.

Nearly 500 years passed before scientists found the compound to be as addictive as heroin, cocaine or alcohol. Those findings were the scientific justification for the Clinton administration's move last week to regulate tobacco as a drug, and to issue rules banning cigarette advertisements that cater to youth.

In Columbus' day, tobacco proved one of the most attractive products of the New World. By the mid-16th century, the French ambassador to Portugal was reporting home that the court physicians of Lisbon used it to relieve stomach ulcers and other ills, setting off a tobacco rage in France. The ambassador, Jean Nicot, no doubt would have rather lent his name to something other than the compound that addicts.

Not everyone thought tobacco could heal. In 1604, King James I of England labeled smoking "a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lung, and the black stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horribly Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless."

To his subjects in Virginia, tobacco was a matter of survival.

In "Ashes to Ashes," his exhaustive history of the tobacco industry, journalist Richard Kluger recounts how one of Jamestown settlement's most famous citizens -- John Rolfe -- acquired seed from a West Indies strain and launched an industry that made Virginia economically viable.

This was the genesis of America's love affair with tobacco, one that grew more intense when soldiers in the Civil War and in all the wars that followed found smoking a good way to pass the time and soothe the nerves. In World War II, the government hooked thousands of soldiers by including cigarettes in rations sent overseas.

By war's end, about 40 percent of adult males smoked. Tobacco reached its popular zenith in the early 1960s (52 percent of all men were smokers, 33 percent of women), but has declined steadily amid overwhelming evidence that ties smoking to hundreds of thousands of cancer and cardiovascular deaths each year.

Tobacco products have come a long way since the Age of Discovery.

According to the industry, the average cigarette is about 90 percent tobacco. The rest is a blend of additives designed to add flavor, aroma and moisture, and to control the rate at which the cigarette burns. There are 600 additives in all, each cigarette brand incorporating different combinations.

Flavorings include extracts of licorice, molasses, dandelion root, walnut hull, apple, raisin, fig, plums, black currant bud, clover top, nutmeg, vanilla and vinegar. Among the more important ones are cocoa and menthol, a cool-tasting anesthetic drawn from the peppermint plant.

Water is added to ensure that tobacco doesn't get brittle or fall apart, glycerin to retain moisture, propylene glycol to serve as a "flavor carrier." Tonka beans and deer tongue are used for their natural coumarin, a compound that imparts a nutty aroma.

vTC Some brands contain ammonia, described in the industry list as "a naturally occurring substance that plays a vital role in protein metabolism, including man." Last year, the Wall Street Journal quoted an industry whistle-blower who gave a different explanation -- that ammonia speeds the body's absorption of nicotine.

Since nicotine causes pleasure by exciting receptors in the brain, scientists suspect that people who get that pleasure faster become addicted sooner.

Tobacco companies maintain that most of the additives have been declared safe by the government or the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers' Association for use in food. Many critics, however, say food-safety tests don't measure toxins that may be created when additives burn.

In his book, Kluger puzzles over the media's preoccupation with additives, noting that the tobacco leaf is the primary ingredient of cigarettes and undoubtedly does the most damage when burned.

Scientists focus less on the leaf's raw ingredients than the products of combustion -- the substances that fill the lung's air sacs with every breath.

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