The history of smokeless tobacco starts with the history of tobacco itself. Native Americans used tobacco by both smoking and chewing in the Americas for centuries. In the late 1400’s, explorers finding the continents brought tobacco back to Europe with them.
Tobacco, when introduced in Europe quickly gained popularity Smoking quickly gained both fans can critics. Detractors even back then thought that drawing smoke into the lungs could not be healthy.
The people of Haiti were observed using a product that was ground tobacco and was snorted into the nose. It was thought that the tobacco product had medicinal value, and the product was recommended to Catherine de Medicis, wife of the King of France, for her sick son. This made the product quickly gain popularity among the elite. Users of snuff included Napoleon and Pope Benedict XIII. Snuff became the tobacco product of choice among the well to do and smoking of tobacco was the purview of the common man.
By the 17th century there were already critics of this form of tobacco also. Pope Urban VIII was willing to excommunicate users, while in Russia; Tsar Michael punished users by cutting off their nose. In the 18th century an English doctor warned of dangers of snuff, after seeing tumors that he felt were related to the intake of tobacco.
Chewing of the tobacco leaves themselves was practiced by the Native Americans from the beginning of the use of tobacco. They used the product in rituals, and believed in its health benefits. It was chewed to cure mouth problems, stave off hunger, and disinfect minor wounds.
As the American South started to become a major producer of tobacco, usage of the leaves for chewing grew. Chewing tobacco was marketed in several different forms. Usage of chewing tobacco peaked in the early 1900’s. Up until the 1980’s chewing tobacco was primarily used by older men, but in recent years the use of chewing tobacco has decreased by older men and increased by teens and young men. Marketing has targeted younger men, promoting the “coolness” of the product.
A popular misconception about smokeless tobacco is that it is less dangerous than cigarettes, so it is okay. However, studies have shown it to be just as dangerous, if not more so. The product sitting in the mouth leads to problems with deterioration of the mouth and teeth, leading to problems with gums and the teeth falling out over time. Other mouth problems included staining of the mouth and bad breath. Smell and taste are affected. The nicotine leads to heart and blood pressure problems. Professional baseball players have linked the habit to lower performance.
The levels of nicotine received from smokeless tobacco are higher, so that make it more addicting even than smoking. Methods of breaking the habit include the use of the nicotine patch and nicotine gum, but the success rate is only about 25%.
The history of smokeless tobacco is less well-known that of smoking tobacco, but just as much a part of our history as any other. Use of this product is not as prevalent, but just as bad.