Following RJ Reynolds announcement in 2014 that it was purchasing rival Lorillard Tobacco in a $25 billion deal, a jury in Florida announced that RJ Reynolds would have to pay out nearly $24 billion in punitive and compensatory damages to Cynthia Robinson, the widow of Michael Johnson who died of lung cancer in 1996. As it stands, Ms. Robinson’s judgment is the largest for any individual. While it’s reasonably clear that such an excessive fine will never stand through the appeal RJ Reynolds will inevitably file, if they haven’t already, this judgment shows just how much popular opinion has turned on cigarette and tobacco producers in the last few decades. Only fifty years ago, Fred Flintstone was enjoying the smooth flavor of a Winston cigarette on national television and cigarettes were popularly smoked on flights. Now, following years of research and public service announcements one would be amazed to see anyone smoking a cigarette in a television show or movie, let alone a children’s cartoon character. This change of heart has come with a better understanding of how tobacco addiction has been ravaging people’s bodies for years, and even today many do not realize the extensive damage and death tobacco addiction can cause.
History of Tobacco
The tobacco plant is native only to the New World, and despite thousands of years of usage by natives, tobacco quickly became the prize of European settlers following Columbus’ fateful “discovery” of Hispaniola in 1492. Natives believed the tobacco plant to have innumerable medicinal properties and it was considered one of the most sacred plants in many Native American societies. Like many sacred Native American activities, it was only a matter of time before Europeans co-opted it and began to cultivate and sell tobacco to their Old World compatriots. By the early 1600s, tobacco was taking root in European nations as a prevalent recreational activity. But it was not without controversy as the Scottish King James VI found the activity repulsive and chronicled in his essay A Counterblaste to Tobacco. He stated that smoking tobacco was “a custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof.” Interestingly enough, without centuries of scientific advancement and modern technology, even King James VI used his intuition to deduce that tobacco was harmful to the lungs.
Tobacco and Slavery
Aside from its perceived drain on the manners and customs of civilized nations, the cultivation of tobacco played a large role in the development of early American society. For those unfamiliar with tobacco production, the plant itself puts a lot of stress on the land its grown on compared to other agricultural crops and it takes a great deal of water, nutrients, and fertilizer to keep the tobacco plant healthy. Aside from that, it also attracts a whole host of destructive pests which requires around the clock observation and pest control. As a result of these factors along with its rapidly growing popularity in Europe, early tobacco cultivators found themselves needing much more labor than they had available and turned to the Mid-Atlantic slave trade to buy extra laborers. Today, historians recognize tobacco cultivation as the primary reason that slaves were brought to the United States as the sugar industry that thrived in the Caribbean was hampered from spreading north as the land was not suitable for sugar cane.
Tobacco: Founding Father?
Aside from slavery, tobacco also had a dramatic impact on the forming of the future American states as Virginia’s early entry into tobacco cultivation made it into one of the wealthiest and therefore, most powerful states. It is no coincidence that four of the first five American presidents were from Virginia, and furthermore, it is no surprise that everyone in the so-called “Virginia Dynasty” grew tobacco, amongst other crops, on the land they owned. In a way, tobacco was the lubrication for the events of the American Revolution as it was one of the main crops that British/Future American colonists were trying to export overseas without the British government intervening. To put the events in the proper frame, the British government, as overlords of the American colonies, passed laws that said the British were the only buyers the colonists were allowed to sell to. British merchants would buy the New World’s high-demand cash crops at rock bottom prices from colonists and re-sell them to other European nations at drastically increased prices incensing colonists and creating a burgeoning smuggling industry. Ultimately, England’s crackdown on American smugglers led to the rallying cry of “No taxation without representation” and was a direct cause of the American Revolution.
After decades of unfettered growth, the abolition of slavery put a damper on the tobacco industry as its years of free labor was coming to an end, and they struggled to find impoverished workers who were willing to become sharecroppers or indentured servants, usually newly freed slaves. After a few years of stagnation, the real explosion in the tobacco business came in the form of a cigarette the rolling machine invented by James Bonsack in 1881, which sent profits for tobacco producers skyrocketing and they would not come down to Earth until the 20th century.
Interestingly enough, Nazi Germany was the first modern state to condemn tobacco usage on health grounds, and they spent a great deal researching its health effects. Still, their rhetoric was very racist and anti-Semitic, making their findings much less credible. Nonetheless, British scientists began to ramp up their research into the health effects of tobacco consumption in the 1940s. As they discovered the significant and detrimental affect smoking cigarettes has on the body, more studies around the world were conducted. In 1954, the UK government announced that lung cancer and smoking were linked and the end of tobacco’s unchecked reign was in sight. By 1964, the United States had also confirmed that lung cancer and smoking tobacco were firmly connected, and while tobacco usage remained strong, public opinion regarding cigarettes and tobacco were souring quickly. The United States government increased tobacco taxes, demanded health warnings be placed on packaging, and following the discovery that tobacco companies were putting chemical additives into their products, the government demanded a full list of the additives in 1994.
The most significant blow to so-called “Big Tobacco” was the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement which was an agreement between the US Government and the five most prominent tobacco companies that would help avoid future litigation. The deal set out payment agreements for tobacco companies to pay state governments for the continued healthcare costs of tobacco usage and funded anti-smoking advocacy groups, as well as demanded that the companies stop marketing tobacco aggressively in the media. Despite the TMSA’s establishment in 1998, the agreement does not protect against civil suits such as the one Cynthia Robinson filed against RJ Reynolds.
The Science Behind Tobacco Addiction
Tobacco addiction is such a prevalent issue today due to the fact that nicotine, the main active ingredient in tobacco, is such an intensely physically addictive substance. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) nicotine is as addictive as heroin and cocaine. Within mammals, nicotine acts as a stimulant and when consumed through inhalation, nicotine begins to reach one’s brain within 10 seconds of consumption. Once nicotine reaches the brain and bonds to the nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, the brain begins to release dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical, as well as adrenaline. There are numerous other chemical compounds in the average tobacco product that have been found to cause minor reactions; nicotine is the primary actor in tobacco addiction. The constant release of dopamine and adrenaline create both a psychological and physical dependency as one can quickly become mentally reliant on the relaxation and mental clarity caused by nicotine entering the bloodstream. The brain also physically adapts to the high levels of those chemicals and any drop in those chemicals will cause physical pain, also known as withdrawal symptoms.
As was revealed in the science section, cigarettes and other processed tobacco products are extremely addictive and quitting them is an enormous challenge for those addicted. A study conducted by the CDC in 2002 found that 68.8% of all smokers wished they could quit smoking and that 42.7% of all smokers had tried to quit for at least a day in the last year. Despite their willingness to quit and their attempts, the respondents were all still smokers making one wonder if there is any way to truly help smokers quit. According to the Cancer Society, only 4 to 7 percent of smokers who try to quit actually do, but the success rates increase slightly with the addition of patches or medications. Surprisingly enough, a second government study found that inpatient nicotine addiction programs with an emphasis on telephone follow-ups reached a success rate of 41.5%. The constant supervision along with a strong support structure after a patient’s release seems to do wonders and as it stands, it seems to be the most effective way for the 68.8% percent of smokers who want to quit to actually achieve their goal.