A brief history of smoking

As one of the world's biggest tobacco firms, Philip Morris, is accused of hypocrisy over its new advertising campaign urging smokers to quit, Julian Humphrys looks at the history of smoking in Britain

A British poster dated 1917 designed by Bert Thomas. (Photo by Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo)

Did Walter Ralegh introduce tobacco to Britain?

Ralegh has been credited with introducing tobacco to the British Isles, but it was already being grown here by the early 1570s and an English sailor was said to have been seen “emitting smoke from his nose” in 1556, when Ralegh was four. Yet Ralegh did help to make smoking popular at court and is even said to have offered a pipe to Queen Elizabeth. The story that a servant saw him smoking, thought he was on fire and threw a mug of ale over him is, alas, without foundation.

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Where did the British first get their tobacco from?

From their colonies in the New World. In 1614 Virginian colonist John Rolfe, the husband of Pocahontas, sent four barrels of tobacco back to England and it soon became a major New World crop.

How did they smoke it?

In clay pipes, which held sway until the late 19th century. At first these had tiny bowls but as tobacco got cheaper the bowls got larger.

Who first mass-produced cigarettes?

The first mass-produced ready-rolled cigarettes were made after the American Civil War by George Washington Duke of North Carolina. However they were rolled by hand and even an expert worker could only produce about four a minute. Then, in 1881, James Bonsack invented a machine that could produce 120,000 cigarettes a day. He joined forces with Duke’s son and in their first year they produced 10m cigarettes – more than they could sell.

When did smoking really take off?

In the First World War. Cigarettes were an essential part of a soldier’s rations and the British Princess Mary Gift Fund sent over 400,000 tins of tobacco and cigarettes to troops for Christmas 1914.

Didn’t people know smoking tobacco was bad for you?

Not at first. Nicotine is named after 16th‑century French scholar Jean Nicot, who promoted its medicinal qualities, and in the 1570s Spanish doctor Nicolas Monardes recommended tobacco as a cure for 36 ailments including toothache, worms, halitosis… and cancer.

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This article was first published in the June 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine