Through the Veil of Smoke: The History and Motivations Behind Cigarettes

The earliest known use of the word "cigarette" can be traced back to the early 18th century in France. The term is derived from the French word "cigarette," meaning "little cigar" or "small roll of tobacco." As the etymology of the word cigarette itself indicates, the cigar predates the cigarette (although, as we'll cover later, not by much). The history of tobacco itself goes back much further, with a 2021 study indicating that tobacco was used by humans in North America as early as 12,300 years ago. Prior to cigarettes, tobacco was either chewed, sucked on, or smoked in primitive pipes. This article we will focus on the cigarette itself, arguably the most common form of smoking in society since it's invention and reaching levels of popularity that the tobacco leaf, the pipe or cigar never quite managed to attain. According to the WHO, it is estimated that more than 1.3 billion people smoke tobacco worldwide today, still vastly outnumbering the likes of electronic cigarettes.

"Smoking is indispensable if one has nothing to kiss." - Sigmund Freud

There are many reasons for smoking that helped contribute to its adoption. As the quote above by Sigmund Freud implies, smoking can even serve as a substitute for physical affection or intimacy. Other reasons for smoking a cigarette include:

A closeup of one of the earliest documented forms of the cigarette in the painting La Cometa by Francisco Goya

The Papelate

In the image above, a man can be seen smoking what looks like a cigarette. This is a closeup of the 1778 painting "La Cometa" (translated: The Kite) by Francisco Goya. However, the word cigarette itself was not adopted until the year 1831 according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In the painting, the "cigarette" depicted was indeed a small cigarette-like form of tobacco, however rolled tobacco back then was typically made with a plant-based or newspaper-based wrapped. Cigarette-like forms of tobacco consumption date back thousands of years; In South and Central America tobacco leaves were historically crushed and wrapped in e.g. banana skin, bark, maize leaves or other vegetation prior to smoking. The Spanish brought tobacco over to Europe in the late 1500's and early 1600's and named this method of enclosing tobacco "papelate", used primarily by those unable to afford pipes or cigars. Around the 1830's, the term "Cigarette" became adopted and made its way into the English dictionary not long after (as early as 1831 as suggested by the Oxford English Dictionary, see earlier reference).

The timeline of the first cigarette depends partially on your definition of cigarette. Wrapping tobacco and smoking said wrapped tobacco is thousands of years old, and wrapping tobacco in paper took place in Europe not long after Columbus's expedition to the Americas and the arrival of the tobacco in Europe. While the papelate was the first recorded form of paper-wrapped tobacco in Europe, the word cigarette itself was born some 2 centuries later.

The first "real" cigarette

The word cigarette was adopted in the 1830's and paper-rolled tobacco gained popularity across France and England in the 1830's and 1840's. Inventions to mass-produce paper-rolled tobacco gained momentum in the following years with notable inventions taking place in 1847 and 1881. This means that both the concept of the cigarette and the word "cigarette" predate mass-production of paper-wrapped tobacco dubbed "cigarettes". The invention by James Bonsack shown below enabled mass-production of cigarettes for the first time. This machine was adopted by James "Buck" Duke, the son of George Washington Duke. By 1884, James Duke had installed two Bonsack machines, each capable of replacing 48 hand rollers. In addition to replacing manual labor and being cheaper, machine-rolled cigarettes gained some reputation for being more hygienic than hand-rolled cigarettes. Despite initial challenges, including resistance from traditionalists and labor disputes, Duke successfully mechanized cigarette production. By 1888, all human rollers were replaced. However, with increased production came a new challenge: oversupply. Duke responded by pioneering advertising strategies, investing heavily in marketing to promote machine-made cigarettes as modern and hygienic alternatives, suitable for various social settings. This blend of innovation and marketing prowess cemented Duke's legacy as a key figure in the tobacco industry's evolution.

The earliest form of mass-production of cigarettes

Multiple tobacco monopolies began not long after the invention of the mass-production of cigarettes. A notable example is the American Tobacco Company (ATC), founded in 1889 through the consolidation of several US-based tobacco firms under the leadership of Buck Duke. Subsequently, the ATC joined forces with Imperial Tobacco of the United Kingdom, forming the global conglomerate British American Tobacco (BAT).

Meanwhile, Philip Morris, originally a humble cigarette retailer in London during the 1850s (before mass-production of cigarettes took off), underwent a remarkable transformation, evolving into the multinational behemoth Altria Group.

The Turning Point

The early 20th century witnessed a surge in cigarette consumption, especially as the health-effects of smoking were unclear for the first decades following the mass-production of paper-rolled tobacco.

The 1964 report on smoking and health, turning point for smoking

Getty Images

Smoking cigarettes continued to gain popularity until the 1960's. The turning point that initiated the slow decline of smoking tobacco was in 1964, when the Surgeon General's report on smoking and health was published.

The consumption of tobacco has been on a steady, but slow decline since 1964.

A re-cap of the cigarette timeline

Year Event Significance
12,300 years ago Consumption of tobacco in vegetation wrapping in the Americas Earliest known use of tobacco by humans
Late 1500s to early 1600s Introduction of tobacco to Europe Initiated the spread of tobacco use globally
1778 Depiction of cigarette-like form of tobacco in painting by Francisco Goya Earliest visual evidence of cigarette-like tobacco consumption in Europe
1831 Adoption of the term "cigarette" into the English dictionary Formal recognition of the term "cigarette" in English language
1847 Philip Morris opens a shop in London to sell rolled cigarettes Establishment of one of the earliest cigarette retail outlets
1865 Lacroix perfects the use of rice in cigarette paper production Improvement in cigarette paper manufacturing process
1881 James Bonsack invents the first practical cigarette rolling machine Revolutionized cigarette production, leading to mass production
1889 Formation of the American Tobacco Company (ATC) Consolidation of major tobacco firms, leading to tobacco monopoly
1964 Publication of the Surgeon General's report on smoking and health Initiated awareness of smoking-related health risks, leading to tobacco control measures
2003 Invention of the electronic cigarette Introduction of a smoking alternative, impacting tobacco consumption trends

Why did cigarettes gain such global popularity?

Clearly the invention of mass-production of paper-wrapped tobacco enabled and jump-started the sale of cigarettes at large scales, but there is more to this. Why the cigarette? And why do some of us still smoke?

"Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I've done it thousands of times." - Mark Twain

A major factor was the marketing strategies employed by tobacco companies to promote cigarettes as fashionable, modern, and socially acceptable. Advertising campaigns portrayed smoking as a symbol of sophistication, rebellion, and freedom, targeting various demographics, including women and young adults.

The effectiveness of marketing cannot be understated. Even when searching for images to accompany this article, e.g. by searching for "smoking" or "cigarette" in image stock sites, the vast majority of images returned seem to glorify smoking in some fashion (mostly through melodramatic poses).

Moreover, cigarettes are a convenient and portable form of tobacco consumption compared to pipes and cigars with their commonly sold form of "20-packs". The introduction of filtered cigarettes in the mid-20th century also contributed to their appeal by promising a safer smoking experience, despite increasing evidence of the health risks associated with tobacco use.

Addictive properties of nicotine keeps consumers hooked, making it challenging for smokers to quit even in the face of health concerns. Despite increased awareness of the dangers of smoking and widespread tobacco control efforts, cigarettes continue to hold a firm grip on global consumption patterns.

It's also important to note the fact that roughly 80% of smokers live in low- and middle-income countries. Limited access to healthcare or lack of control policies, or lack of awareness are factors driving this fact. Unfortunately, cigarettes are also used as an appetite suppressant in poorer parts of the world.

To see the effects of control policies around smoking and the massive differences between the western and eastern parts of the world, be sure to look at our visual overview of cigarette prices globally.

Top 10 Reasons Why Cigarettes Gained Popularity

  1. Mass Production Invention: The invention of mass-production techniques for cigarettes significantly increased their availability and affordability. Importance: 100
  2. Effective Marketing: Aggressive marketing campaigns by tobacco companies promoted cigarettes as modern, stylish, and socially acceptable. Importance: 95
  3. Nicotine Addiction: Nicotine, a highly addictive substance in tobacco, kept consumers hooked and compelled them to continue smoking. Importance: 90
  4. Cultural Influence: Cultural norms and societal perceptions contributed to the normalization and acceptance of smoking behavior. Importance: 85
  5. Convenience: Cigarettes offered a convenient and portable way to consume tobacco compared to pipes or cigars. Importance: 80
  6. Peer Influence: Social pressure and influence from peers and social circles encouraged individuals to take up smoking. Importance: 75
  7. Stress Relief: Many smokers turned to cigarettes as a coping mechanism for stress and anxiety relief. Importance: 70
  8. Hygienic Perception: Machine-made cigarettes were marketed as more hygienic and suitable for public spaces compared to other forms of tobacco. Importance: 65
  9. Tobacco Industry Influence: The powerful tobacco industry lobbied governments, influenced policies, and suppressed information about the health risks of smoking. Importance: 60
  10. Accessibility: Cigarettes were/are readily available in convenience stores, supermarkets, and vending machines, making them easily accessible to consumers. Importance: 55