All tobacco products start with a simple leaf. The cultivation of tobacco leaf, indigenous to the Americas, dates back at least eight millennia, and tobacco smoking for at least two. In the 15th century, Columbus helped shape the future of the tobacco industry as the first “importer” of tobacco into Europe. Within decades, tobacco had spread globally, including cultivation for commercial purposes. Mechanization of cigarette manufacturing in the 1880s helped grow the market for cigarettes dramatically, increasing demand for tobacco leaf.
While widespread cultivation of tobacco leaf has generated many challenges— including health hazards for farmers, environmental degradation and child labor issues—the most pressing systemic public health challenge is how the industry often uses tobacco farming to undermine tobacco control, arguing that tobacco control destroys the livelihoods of smallholder tobacco farmers. This specious argument—often perpetuated by governments’ economic and/or agribusiness sectors—has resonated widely, undermining tobacco control efforts around the globe. Not coincidentally, tobacco farming has also shifted to some of the world’s lowest-HDI countries, where governments are typically more economically and politically vulnerable.