What was tobacco's importance in America's development?

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Tobacco grows in leaves, in warm climates, and is processed into various ingestible forms including smoking, snuff (snorting), and chew. Tobacco that is smoked includes cigarette, cigar, cigarillo, and pipe, and smoking is by far the most common form of consumption. Tobacco growing has influenced America, broadly, in three different...

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ways: in the development of the Native American economy, development of the European-dominant economy, and by influencing a robust medical research and public health system.

First, tobacco was used as ceremonial tool in the development of native people's social, spiritual and political culture. Passing a pipe sealed deals, and the tobacco pipe was often used as medicine. Tobacco has been cultivated for over 7,000 years, and since its cultivation began in South America and spread to North American natives, its history parallels the development of crop production among North American Native Americans and is integral to their spiritual and civil histories. The mode of use for most tribes was spiritual, which includes healing rituals. Importantly, tobacco was used among these peoples ritually at all times and was not consumed daily or habitually. Tobacco use was well established by the time Europeans arrived, but its use was not marketed on a mass scale until the invaders realized its power as a drug, and more importantly its power to addict users and therefore make money for manufacturers.

Second, tobacco in the new world was an economic staple, especially in the southern colonies. The cultivation of tobacco paralleled the rise of the new world economy and, to some degree, drove the export economy. It was exported to Europe and to northern states. Export across the Atlantic began in the early 1600s, grew quickly within a few trading seasons, and soon tobacco became a primary export that helped the new American colony survive and prosper. In Virginia and Maryland, it became legal currency. Although it is a mind-altering drug, its economic value was such that church leaders and others looked past this and the morality of using it became a minor issue. The importance of tobacco as an economic powerhouse continued until the 1990s, when its health effects had been well-researched and data showed that over 400,000 Americans died each year from tobacco-related diseases, including COPD, lung cancer, and heart disease.

Third, tobacco in 1998 was part of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, in which the four largest tobacco companies settled with the attorneys general of 46 states over the deleterious health effects of tobacco. States received large cash and Medicaid settlements, as well as ongoing financial payments in perpetuity to recover losses due to healthcare needs. Tobacco companies made sweeping changes to how they promoted and marketed tobacco (especially to youth) as a result of the Master Settlement. Twenty years later, the public health campaign—largely funded by tobacco companies—to help people quit smoking had reduced use prevalence from over 30% to roughly 15% of American adults and saved countless lives. This anti-tobacco campaign and use of the legal system to curtail healthcare costs has become a model for social justice and public health activism for the rest of the world.

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