What Is Tobacco?

LaFayette Junior/Senior High School: Mitchel D. and Devon P.
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(background sounds) Each year, an estimated 443,000 people die prematurely from smoking. Don’t smoke your friends away.
Have you heard someone say that he is trying to quit using tobacco? This person has a real challenge ahead. Fortunately, he is not alone—there are several ways to get help. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), more than 35 million people try to quit smoking each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that this is about 70 percent of all smokers. Teens, and even preteens, are a part of this group. According to the 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance report, about 50 percent of high school smokers also tried to quit. Tobacco use is a habit that is not easy to break. Many wish that they had never started smoking or chewing tobacco.

A Big Problem

According to the World Health Organization, tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death worldwide. It causes more than 5 million deaths every year, and is projected to cause more than 8 million deaths annually by 2030. According to the “2014 Surgeon General’s Report: The Health Consequences of Smoking,” more than 480,000 Americans die annually from tobacco use, including about 41,000 from secondhand smoke. That is about one in five deaths per year, or 1,300 deaths a day. According to the CDC in 2014, 18 percent of Americans, or about 42 million people, are smokers. Health Canada reported in 2013 that 16 percent of Canadians, or about 4.6 million people, are smokers. Today, teen smoking rates are at historic lows. The 2014 Monitoring the Future survey found that 8 percent of eighth, tenth, and twelfth grade students have smoked in the past month. That is less than a third of the 28 percent teen smoking rate in 1998. While the numbers are declining, they still show that millions of teens are exposing themselves to harm daily as they light up. Unless smoking rates decline further, 5.6 million of today’s Americans younger than 18 years of age are expected to die prematurely from a smoking-related illness, according to the Surgeon General’s report.

Declines in teen smoking have been countered by skyrocketing use of e-cigarettes, electronic devices that produce a vapor for users to inhale. The 2014 Monitoring the Future survey was the first to track teen use of e-cigarettes, and it found that 17 percent of high school seniors had used e-cigarettes in the past month, compared to 13 percent that smoked. Among tenth graders, e-cigarette use is more than double cigarette use (16 percent versus 7 percent). The same is true of eighth graders: nearly 9 percent have used e-cigarettes while only 4 percent have smoked in the past month. Many teens believe e-cigarettes are safe. However, they contain nicotine, the same addictive substance as cigarettes. According to the New York Times, health experts believe e-cigarettes may be pushing teens toward smoking or vaping, potentially slowing or reversing the recent declines in teen tobacco use. Health experts are also concerned about the rise in popularity of flavored tobacco. In 2015, a survey conducted by the Center for Tobacco Products at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that the majority of teen tobacco users said the first tobacco product they used was flavored to taste like mint, clove, fruit, alcohol, or candy.

In May 2016, the FDA announced that all tobacco products, including cigars, nicotine gels, hookah tobacco, pipe tobacco, and e-cigarettes, will be regulated just like regular cigarettes. These products cannot be sold to anyone under 18, cannot be sold in vending machines (unless it’s an adult-only facility), and will require adults under the age of 26 to show photo ID to buy them. In addition, the products must pass FDA inspection and producers must apply for a license to make and sell them, including small businesses that mix and sell their own tobacco blends or flavored e-liquids.

Defining Tobacco

Tobacco is a broad-leaf plant indigenous to North and South America. Its leaves are dried, cured, and ground up to form the kind of tobacco that people consume. People in the Western world consume tobacco primarily by smoking it and chewing it. Tobacco is used to make cigarettes and cigars. It is also smoked in pipes. Chewing tobacco comes in several forms, including snuff and plugs.

People have used tobacco for thousands of years. Native Americans used tobacco as an entheogen, which is a psychoactive substance used to enhance a spiritual or mystical experience. Native American shamans used tobacco in a highly concentrated form specifically during rituals and as medicine. Oftentimes, in ceremonies the smoke is not inhaled into the lungs, but blown toward the Great Spirit as an offering. Early European settlers took tobacco back to Europe, where its use became very popular as a recreational activity. Tobacco was also thought to have medicinal value and was used to treat headaches, colds, and sores.

Tobacco became a driving force in the colonization of the American South. John Rolfe was credited as the first man to successfully raise tobacco crops as a commercial product in early seventeenth-century Jamestown, Virginia. By 1620, 40,000 pounds of tobacco were exported to England. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, tobacco was the cash crop of the Virginia Colonies. Until 1883, the heavily taxed plant accounted for approximately one-third of the internal revenue collected by the U.S. government. Since then, tobacco has continued to be a lucrative crop.


Since Europeans first used it recreationally, tobacco has been very popular. People who tried tobacco products, either by smoking or chewing, quickly became addicted.

Tobacco products are addictive because they contain nicotine. Nicotine is a powerful and addictive drug. It is also a poison. A large amount of nicotine injected directly into the bloodstream could kill a human in less than an hour. Nicotine is what gives you a “buzz,” or a high, when you smoke. It hooks you and keeps you coming back for more. Even if someone successfully quits, it is not uncommon for him to start smoking again as much as a year or more after the last cigarette.

Nicotine is in all tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, and chewing or “smokeless” tobacco. To buy nicotine, you must be at least eighteen years old. Still, young people are able to obtain products with nicotine and use them regularly. People who use them claim that they create a calming or soothing feeling. They also say that using them helps clear their heads and concentrate. Scientists believe that the nicotine found in tobacco products can cause serious health problems.

Saying No

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Teens may smoke to feel more accepted by other smokers. This influence by friends or acquaintances to try something that could be harmful is called peer pressure. It’s the number-one reason young people start to smoke. You probably know that peer pressure isn’t a good reason to start smoking—or do anything else you don’t want to do, for that matter. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to avoid. Consider all of these reasons to avoid smoking that aren’t simply related to your health:

  • Four out of five of your peers (those your age) do not smoke. Teen smoke rates have been dropping for years.

  • Smoking is permitted in fewer and fewer places. Growing numbers of people don’t allow smoking in their homes. Many office buildings are now entirely smoke-free. Some drugstores have stopped selling all tobacco products.

  • Cigarette smoke gets into everything such as your clothes and hair, causing you to smell strongly, especially to nonsmokers. You also have bad breath.

  • Smoking on school grounds may get you suspended. If you do it several times, you might be expelled.

How can you resist the peer pressure to smoke? Here are some ideas:

  • Make it clear to your smoker friends that you don’t smoke, period.

  • If you’ve tried smoking and didn’t like it, say so. Tell your friends it does nothing for you.

  • Don’t be influenced by the fact that members of your family smoke. Smoking is their choice. It doesn’t have to be yours.

  • Let non-smoker friends know you agree with them. This can give all of you the strength to keep away from tobacco.

  • Many teens start smoking to lose weight. Cigarette makers often use the words “slim” and “light” in brand names to promote the idea that smoking can make people thin. Smoking may reduce your appetite, but the long-term health risks aren’t worth it.

  • One out of two teens who hang out with smokers also begin to smoke. Only 3 percent who have non-smoker friends start smoking.

  • Three out of ten teens whose older brothers or sisters smoke take up the habit. Fifteen percent of teens whose parents smoke will smoke, too.

  • If you start smoking early, you are sixteen times more likely to smoke as an adult than if you started smoking after age twenty-one.

  • Teens misjudge the addictive power of cigarettes. Of the millions of teens who smoke, 92 percent say they don’t plan to be smoking in a year. But only 1.5 percent manage to quit!

Pressure From Advertising

Cigarette advertising is seen by countless people under age eighteen, the legal age for tobacco use. Tobacco companies that use cartoon characters in ads are often accused of trying to appeal to children.

Some encourage people to buy more cigarettes by offering prizes such as sweatshirts, caps, and jackets with the brand name on them. To get these items, you have to sign a statement confirming that you are twenty-one years old. But these gimmicks often appeal to younger people.

Although cigarette companies are no longer allowed to advertise on television, they spend millions of dollars promoting televised sports events enjoyed by young viewers. Brand names are often mentioned on the air. Brand name banners and signs are also seen on the TV screen.

The federal government and organizations such as the American Cancer Society and the American Medical Association have criticized the tobacco companies that are responsible for advertising aimed at youth. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recommended that certain kinds of magazine ads read by many young people be banned, and that tobacco billboards should not be allowed near schools. Beginning September 2012, the FDA will require larger, more prominent cigarette health warnings on all cigarette packaging and advertisements in the United States. This is the most significant change to U.S. cigarette packaging in twenty-five years. The nine new labels feature disturbing images that convey the dangers of smoking such as diseased lungs, rotting teeth and gums, and a tracheotomy. The labels also include phrases like "Cigarettes are addictive" and "Tobacco smoke causes fatal lung disease in nonsmokers," and the number to the national quit line: 1-800-QUIT-NOW. According to the FDA, "the introduction of these warnings is expected to have a significant public health impact by decreasing the number of smokers, resulting in lives saved, increased life expectancy, and lower medical costs."

Today, smoke-free laws are becoming more and more common across the country.
The FDA has worked in other ways to reduce the number of teen smokers. People who want to buy cigarettes must show proof of their age to buy cigarettes. Also, the FDA says that tobacco brand names should not be used to sponsor sporting events.

Not all of these recommendations have taken effect, but they are part of an attempt to reduce tobacco brand awareness among teens and children, and hopefully to decrease the sale of these harmful products to young people.


Ever since smoking was linked to health problems, people have tried to legislate its use. For example, in 1970 the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act mandated stronger warnings on all packages of cigarettes. Today, smoke-free laws are becoming more and more common across the country. A smoke-free law is legislation banning the use of smoking materials in designated areas such as public buildings and restaurants. The intent of these laws is to spare non-smokers from the ill effects of secondhand smoke. In January 2006, eleven states had no-smoking laws in effect for all indoor public spaces. Some cities in California have gone so far as to ban smoking in outdoor public areas as well. In 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that while smoking rates had remained about the same for the last five years, the states with smoke-free laws had the lowest smoking prevalence among adults.

U.S. President Barack Obama signed new legislation in June 2009 that granted the FDA broad power to regulate the manufacturing, marketing, and sale of tobacco. Called the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, the law gave the FDA the ability to: 1) reduce amounts of nicotine in cigarettes, 2) ban candy- and fruit-flavored cigarettes that target first-time and young smokers, 3) limit the advertising of tobacco products, 4) forbid tobacco companies from using words like "low tar," "light" or "mild," and 5) mandate that packages include larger warning labels. The law was particularly aimed at young people and first-time smokers.