The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

September 27, 2013

Dedicated puffers fear they'll lose control if they quit

Point Blank

By John Blankenship

— Besides discovering America in 1492, Christopher Columbus also discovered the cigar.

He and his crew were the first Europeans to see New World Indians smoking tobacco rolled in leaves. The word probably comes from sik’ar, the Mayan Indian term for smoking, according to “Stories Behind Everyday Things.”

According to historical sources, Rodrigo de Jerez was the first of Columbus’ shipmates to try a cigar, on Oct. 28 of the same year, in what is now the Dominican Republic.

The Indians had already been puffing away happily for at least 500 years. The Aztecs perhaps puffed more happily than any others — they laced their cigars with hallucinogenic additives from such plants as mushrooms.

This may be why one explorer noted, “The effect of the smoke is a certain drowsiness of the whole body accompanied by a certain species of intoxication.”

Tobacco alone seemed to be good enough for the Europeans. In 1567 a French description of the effects of tobacco stated that smokers “say that their hunger and thirst are allayed, their strength restored and the spirits are refreshed.”

Until the late 18th century, doctors prescribed smoking as an antidote for everything from bad breath to lockjaw.

Spain became the first European country to embrace cigar smoking. After the Napoleonic wars, however, which brought French and English troops to Spain, the practice spread to other European countries.

Americans took up the habit about the mid-18th century and made their own at home. Cigars developed by Pennsylvania Dutch farmers in Conestoga, Pa., were favored by drivers of Conestoga wagons, and the smokes acquired the nickname of “stogies.”

By the 1800s cigar factories were flourishing throughout the eastern United States. They turned out cigars in an amazing variety of sizes and shapes, eventually making them as small as the delgado or as long as a 6-foot-2-inch model ordered by a maharajah. Most of the more popular shapes were less extreme: torpedo-shaped ideales, fat perfectos, thin cheroots and long, straight panatelas.

Some of the best cigars, Havanas, are produced in Vuelta Abajo, a region in Cuba that is “a natural hothouse and a natural humidor” by virtue of its soil, wind, water and sun. Curiously, when stored under proper conditions, Havanas all over the world ferment at the same time, which corresponds to the onset of the Cuban summer.

The Spanish explorers who landed in Mexico in 1515 probably were the first to bum a cigarette. Their hosts were natives who smoked the earliest king-size versions on record — hollow reeds nearly a foot long filled with crushed tobacco.

The paper-wrapped cigarette was born much later, according to one account, in the thick of battle between the Egyptians and Turks in 1832. When an enemy cannon ball smashed the communal clay pipe belonging to a group of Egyptian cannoneers, they stuffed their tobacco into the hollow paper torches used to touch off their guns.

Cigarette making as an industry was also a fortune of war. During the Crimean War (1853-56) English troops captured an entire train carrying Russian officers. The English traded their prisoners but kept the Russians’ homemade cigarettes, which became such a hit in London that several tobacconists (including one named Phillip Morris) began producing them for sale. Tobacco-shop owners in New York soon joined the competition.

Cigarette making was mechanized in 1880 when a Virginian, James Albert Bonsack, invented a machine that wrapped cut tobacco in a long paper tube and then cut the tube into cigarette-size lengths.

Machine-made cigarettes lowered the price and put a pack within reach of anyone who had a nickel. More than a billion cigarettes were manufactured in the United States in 1885 (more than that number are smoked daily in the United States now), but cigarettes did not become more popular than pipes, snuff, cigars, or chewing tobacco until 1921.

Why is a proven health hazard so popular? Behavioral scientists have suggested that smokers use cigarettes as a substitute for almost everything —  from not having sex to not having been breast fed as infants.

One poll showed that cigarette smoking is so desperately important to some smokers that they fear they will lose control of their entire lives if they quit.


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— Blankenship is a reporter for The Register-Herald. E-mail: