The Rise and Fall of the Tobacco Culture in America


In 2014, the Center of Disease Control (CDC) reported that 16.8% of all Americans above the age of 18 years old classified themselves as a smoker; a person who has smoked at least 100 cigarettes within their lifetime.

The radical shift in the way cigarettes are viewed by Americans occurred about four decades ago, labeling these “cancer sticks” as the leading cause of 1 out of 5 deaths among U.S. citizens each year. Countless amounts of  research has been done to show tobacco’s harmful contribution to several forms of cancer, as well as lung and cardiovascular diseases. Numerous campaigns have been made to stop people from picking up a pack of cigarettes from their local gas stations or convenience stores, and laws have even been passed to prevent people below the age of 21 from purchasing one.

But how could we get to this point in time when Tobacco companies are still one of the leading contributors to America’s economy? What happened to the generations of people who would light a cigarette in an elevator or while they used a public bathroom. Who told smokers they had to sit at a different section in a restaurant away from non-smoking families and kids?

The cultural shift in the use of cigarettes is an interesting history to follow because it not only was a common practice in America, but it died just as fast as it became popularized.

The History and Culture

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Images of the Tobacco plant and plantations

Tobacco is a plant with green leaves that can be grown in warm areas with a lot of sunlight. The plant was originally indigenous to the Americas and was first brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus after his discovery of the “New World.” Native Americans smoked tobacco for medicinal purposes and religious practices while places like England and Spain adopted the plant and smoked it in the form of cigars or used the smokeless tobacco to chew.

Since its discovery, it has been grown all around the world and has been an economic driver for the United States since the countries formation. During America’s earliest years, farmers in Virginia grew the plant to export back into England and to provide income before the revolution.

Originally, cigarettes were looked down upon and were coined by Spain as “beggar’s smokes.” The name came from poor beggars taking other people’s leftover cigar wrapping and tobacco to make a small skinny roll to have a quick smoke. Many people saw that form of smoke to be distasteful and contrast to the nobility established from smoking a full cigar or pipe.

It was a line of businessmen who changed the game of cigarette culture in the United States in the 1800’s. After the Civil War, Washington Duke of Raleigh, North Carolina rolled and sold his first cigarettes to returning soldiers. Duke’s son, James Buchannan Duke, would continue his father’s business and created the American Tobacco Company. Duke then partnered with James Albert Bonsack, inventor of the first cigarette rolling-machine, who presented the idea to Duke during the formation of the company. This single invention allowed Duke’s production to skyrocket from his first year of business.

Duke originally imported about 150 workers to his factory to hand roll cigarettes. Once he and Bonsack got the machine working properly, he was able to produce about 120,000 cigarettes in a day. This innovation allowed companies to start firing hand rolling workers and shift their concern from production to better marketing strategies.


Advertisements & Commercials

By the 1900’s, cigarette companies were in full throttle creating different brands and packages to get packs into the hands of customers.  Acres upon acres of land had been reserved in states like North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tenseness for plantations dedicated to growing tobacco.

Tobacco Acres Harvested by State in 1991
State 1991 Acres
Connecticut 1,750
Florida 6,700
Georgia 40,000
Indiana 7,200
Kentucky 223,150
Maryland 7.400
Massachusetts 480
Montana 3.000
North Carolina 274,000
Ohio 1,0,500
Pennsylvania 10,500
South Carolina 51,000
Tennessee 61,700
Virginia 53,600
West Virginia 1,800
Wisconsin 7,400
United States 761,080
Credit: Dr. Joel Dunnington, Tobacco Almanac, Revised, May 1993. Obtained from reports done by

Philip Morris & Co, now renamed to Altria in 2003, saw the highest turnout in sales from international and United States smokers. By 1924, Philip Morris had already sold a variety of brands across the globe including Oxford Blues, Cambridge’s, Derby’s, L&M’s, and Marlboro cigarettes.

The American Tobacco Company hired Edward Bernays and funded his “Torches of Freedom” campaign using Lucky Strike cigarettes.  The goal of the campaign was to get women thinking that smoking a cigarette would make them more independent and equal to men by showing groups of women marching down New York streets smoking together. This all occurred along with the feminist realizations during WW1 where many women took up jobs after men left to fight in the war.

Philip Morris also designed a marketing strategy in the 1930’s to make cigarettes appeal to women by introducing their “Ivory tips protect the lips” slogan in their advertising. Also with the introduction of Virginia Slims, a slim cigarette tailored for independent women, came the introduction of the slogan “you’ve come a long way baby” in the 1960’s.

Cigarette companies also expanded their market which allowed them to not only make external revenue, but to have other mediums to push their products on non-smokers. The original air of the Flintstones (1960) was sponsored by the Winston cigarettes brand. During the end of episodes, the two main characters Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble would take a smoke break and sing the Winston slogan “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.”

It is no surprise that cigarette companies played off of traditional American values to advertise their products. Old cigarette packs used to come with collectible baseball cards, while Lucky Strike changed its box color from green to red and white to support troops of WWII by saving copper in production. During WWI and WWII, cigarette companies shipped thousands of creates to troops containing free cigarettes. Many commercials during the 1950’s showed cowboys, adventurous women, business men, navy crew members, and even African Americans enjoying a cigarette. All this was an effort for the companies to get people smoking, get people buying packs, and get people to think that smoking was part of the normal culture.


Death of the Culture & Effects

In 1964, US Surgeon General Luther Terry released a report that linked diseases like lung cancer and heart disease to smoking. This sparked nationwide controversy over the sale of cigarettes and its addictive properties causing thousands of premature deaths. Many states issued laws to control the sale of cigarette packs to minors and a movement was made to ban cigarettes companies from advertising their products on television and radio.

In 1965, Congress passed a bill that forced all packs of cigarettes to contain a label which read, “Cigarettes may be hazardous to your health.” It was President Richard Nixon who signed legislation to ban tobacco companies from advertising over the air on April 1, 1970.

The Surgeon General also pushed for a bill to be passed in the 1980’s that required all tobacco products to contain one of four warning labels, and required the company to update and alternate between the labels every three months.

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Surgeon General warning labels that cigarette companies must alternate between on their products every three months. This was required after the passage of the Comprehensive Smoking Education Act, 1984. Credit: Smoking Tobacco & Health, Center for Disease Control


Tobacco plants naturally contain thousands of chemicals, but the most infamous one is nicotine. Nicotine is a naturally occurring addictive drug that forms in the tobacco leaves and is extremely poisonous in high doses. Tar is a dark liquid that is left behind after the burning of wood, plants, or coal.

When a cigarette is smoked, it only takes about 10 seconds for the nicotine to reach the blood stream and deliver the drug to the brain through the heart. Once there, the drug will enhance the nervous system, cause the heart to beat faster, and enhance the body’s production of chemicals that produce pleasure, according to

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Taken from Shows a computer generated model of the effects that nicotine has once it enters the lungs.

Menthol cigarettes, most commonly advertised through Newport and Salem brands, are more dangerous than regular cigarettes. Menthol is added to give a mint-like flavor to the smoke and allows for a cool refreshing feeling in the lungs. The problem is that they still contain over 4,000 chemicals and 43 carcinogens found in a regular cigarette, and the reduced harshness of the smoke allows for people to inhale it deeper into their lungs. The deeper the smoke goes into the lungs, the longer it will stay there destroying tissue.

Many advocate groups have formed to show the harmful effects of cigarette smoking to encourage people to quit. Commercials, showing the internals of the body after a person is diagnosed with cancer, are a common scare tactic used to steer people away from wanting to pick one up.

There are two forms of quitting encouraged in America. The first is through the process of “whining” yourself away from nicotine through the help of patches and gum. The idea is to provide small doses of nicotine to the body to combat withdrawal, while working to not pick up a cigarette for the fix.

The other most common way is called going cold turkey. This is when a smoker goes from smoking to just stopping. They will usually substitute the addiction with something more positive like taking a walk or working out, but they stop smoking all together and get rid of any cigarettes in their possession.


The use of any images and video within this blog post are strictly for educational
purposes under fair use. Credit has been given to the providers of all material
used and links to the original works can be found accompanying the use of the 

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