Tobacco Facts #5: How the Tobacco Epidemic began with Colonial America’s exploitation of African slaves

Tobacco was first used as a major cash crop in Colonial America. It was often called, “brown gold.” In the 1600s, tobacco plantations in North America grew in number, as more and more people became addicted to the nicotine in the plant. To meet the increasing demand for tobacco, and to keep costs down and profits up, white settlers brought more slaves from Africa to carry out the much needed labour in tobacco plantations. Indeed, tobacco was America’s most valuable export crop in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Tobacco production was the main reason that slavery in North America flourished!

Later on, tobacco companies provided many jobs for African Americans, not because they were practising ethical civil rights, but because they wanted African Americans to smoke more cigarettes. They paid and used African American celebrities, including actors, singers and sports stars, to promote cigarettes to the African American public. Tobacco companies aligned themselves with African American organisations, including civil rights groups. By the 1950s, the tobacco industry had succeeded: the proportion of black men who smoked exceeded the proportion of white men who smoked.

The boom in American tobacco production, fed by exploitation of slaves by the early tobacco industry, led inevitably to the development, in the early 1880s, of the first machine that manufactured cigarettes: it could produce 200 cigarettes a minute. Prior to that time, cigarettes were hand-made, usually by women, who could make four or five cigarettes in one minute. The industrial production of vast numbers of cigarettes would now fuel the worst pandemic the world has seen: that of tobacco-related diseases. Nowadays, a machine can make 20,000 cigarettes in a minute.


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