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What is tobacco?

Tobacco contains a chemical called nicotine that when ingested gives the consumer a “pleasurable rush” and as a consequence people from all over the world have been addicted to this plant for centuries. Nicotine stimulates the release of adrenaline in the brain and this is the rush or nicotine “hit” that people have been addicted to for centuries. Tobacco is most commonly ingested by inhaling the smoke from burning it. Tobacco is burnt using a cigarette, cigar or tobacco pipes. It can also be chewed in the form of chewing tobacco or snuffed.

More information on Cigarettes.

It has been known since the 1930s that tobacco is a dangerous substance that is associated with many, severe adverse health effects, not only for the people who consume it but for the people around them.

Tobacco history

TobaccoPeople have been chewing, smoking or inhaling tobacco as a source of the powerful and addictive chemical nicotine since 6000BC.

Tobacco is a plant which originated in North and South America and was introduced to Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. As a consequence, it was introduced as part of the Australian culture from 1788 when the first Europeans settled and the habit was quickly adopted by indigenous Australians. By the early 1800s tobacco was used as a work incentive for servants and prisoners and knowing its addictive effect, was even withheld as a punishment. It has been approximated that around this time 80-90% of male labourers smoked. Initially, Australia predominantly maintained its own tobacco industry with plants grown in New South Wales from as early as 1820 then later extending to Queensland and Victoria.

Changes in society in the 1920s heightened the prevalence of female smokers and as such advertising began to target women.

The Australian government began to support the tobacco industry in the 1930s with the Local Leaf Content Scheme put into place. The scheme required that local tobacco made up a proportion of the manufacture of all Australian tobacco products. The proportion was raised until it reached 57% Australian tobacco leaf by 1977.

By the early 1990s the Industry Commission made an enquiry into the tobacco industry. It found that tobacco was the most subsidised agricultural activity in Australia, receiving more than 12 times the assistance for all other agricultural activities. It announced tobacco as an inefficient, non-competitive market and as a result the Local Leaf Content scheme was abolished. After this, the Australian tobacco industry declined as a result of international competition. Today there is no commercial tobacco farming in Australia, most of the tobacco used in Australian is imported from the USA, Brazil, Zimbabwe and India.

Negative health effects associated with tobacco use

TobaccoIn the 1920s-30s doctors began noticing an increase of lung cancerwhich seemed to be associated with smoking. In the 1950s experiments were performed which confirmed the doctors theories but the opposition from the tobacco companies and the community restricted the spread of this information. It was not until the 1970s that the Australian government began to implement laws and campaigns to endeavour to curb the deadly habit.

There are many long and short-term adverse health consequences associated with tobacco use. Tobacco smoke contains more than 4,000 different chemical compounds, at least 60 of these have been identified as carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) and 30 identified metals, some of which are radioactive. Chemical compounds found in all phases of cigarette smoke have been associated with independent negative effects on the smoker, which means they produce their own separate damage.

The immediate, short-term effects from smoking are mostly related to the nicotine hit. Nicotine stimulates the release of adrenaline which increases blood pressure, respiration (breaths per minute), heart rate and glucose release. In the long term, addiction to the nicotine “hits” are inevitable for all smokers, teenagers are especially susceptible.

Smoking is the major cause of preventable death (smokers die an average of 14 years earlier than non-smokers) and disease in Australia. One-third of all cancers are caused by smoking. Chronic lung disease such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis, heart disease, stroke, heart attack (myocardial infarction) and aneurysm are also associated with smoking tobacco.

Types of tobacco

Types of tobaccoThere are 4 main types of tobacco used in the tobacco industries:

  • Virginia tobacco is the most popular tobacco leaf in Australia. It is named after the state in the USA where the tobacco was first grown, now it is also grown in Brazil and Zimbabwe. Virginia tobacco has a high sugar content. The sugar makes the smoke from the cigarette sweeter than other brands but when the sugar burns a number of harmful acids are produced. Tobacco smoke from Virginian tobacco produces free nicotine. This means the nicotine has a quicker and stronger effect in the brain but the smoke is harsher.
  • Burley tobacco is a bitter tobacco that contains barely any sugar. It is grown in the USA, Central America, Malawi and Uganda.
  • Oriental tobacco is a hardy and small tobacco plant. This tobacco is grown in the Middle East and predominates the Middle Eastern Market.
  • Blended tobacco is a mixture of Oriental, Virginia and Burley tobacco.

Manufacturing tobacco

The tobacco plant needs to go through a number of processes before it is suitable for human consumption. Tobacco is manufactured in many different ways depending on the type of tobacco plant that is used and the area of the plant the leaves are taken from.

Curing tobacco

Curing is the first necessary process to prepare the tobacco for consumption. The curing process dries out the plant ready for processing. The way the tobacco is cured and processed will dictate the flavour, strength and harshness of the tobacco. Different ways of curing and processing the tobacco will also influence the nicotine content in the leaf. The content of nicotine and the flavour will also depend upon the type and part of leaf that is used. The higher on the tobacco plant the leaf is taken, the greater the nicotine content, and in general the richer the flavour.Curing tobacco involves hanging up the tobacco plant or lying it down and drying it. During this process the starch in the leaves are converted to sugar and the plant will change colour and texture. Different tobacco plants are cured in different ways to achieve different textures and flavours of the tobacco.

  • TobaccoAir-cured tobacco– tobacco leaves are left to dry naturally when they are air-cured. The leaves are hung in big barn-like shelters with room temperature air pumped in. The leaves need to stay in the shelter until the leaf has turned a light brown colour. At this point the leaf is left with hardly any sugar content. This is the curing used for Burley tobacco.
  • Flue-cured tobacco– tobacco leaves are hung to dry in hot shelters (like a furnace) for around a week. This curing technique leaves many sugars in the plant and therefore produces a sweet tobacco. This is how Virginian tobacco is cured.
  • Fire-cured tobacco– tobacco leaves are exposed to smoke from fires by laying the leaves on burning brushwood. This gives a smoky tobacco. It is a similar process to curing smoked ham.
  • Sun-cured tobacco– the tobacco leaves are hung outside and exposed to direct sunlight for 12 to 30 days. The leaves that are sun-cured maintain a high sugar content.

Processing tobacco

Once the tobacco leaf has been cured it is processed. Processing tobaccoinvolves separating the leafy part from the stem. At this point the sand, dust and foreign matter are extracted. There is only a small amount of moisture left in the leaves when they have finished being processed.

Expanded tobacco can also be used in cigarettes. This is when carbon dioxide has been added to the cut tobacco leaf. This will expand or puff up the plant cells. Expanded tobacco is used to make cigarettes firmer and it also helps control the burn rate of the cigarette.

Consuming tobacco

It is important to remember that no matter how tobacco is consumed, it has dangerous consequences for your health.

Smoking tobacco

TobaccoSmoking tobacco involves inhaling the smoke from the combustion of tobacco leaves. The most common way of inhaling smoke from tobacco is through the use of manufactured cigarettes. In 1881 the cigarette-rolling machine was introduced which enabled mass production of cigarettes. The widespread availability of convenient and portable cigarette packets through mass production substantially amplified the use of tobacco.

Manufactured cigarettes are not by any means the only way of inhaling tobacco smoke. Around the world people also use:

  • Roll-your-own cigarettes – as the name suggests roll your own cigarettes are fine-cut, loose tobacco that is rolled up by hand in cigarette paper.
  • Cigars – are large rolls of air-cured tobacco which are wrapped in tobacco-leaf. Cigar tobacco is left to age and ferment and therefore contains even greater amounts of carcinogenic compounds.
  • Bidis – small rolls of sun-dried tobacco wrapped in a common asian leaf, tendu leaf.
  • Kteteks – clove-flavoured cigarettes widely smoked in Indonesia.
  • Water pipes – devices which allow flavoured tobacco to be burned in a smoking bowl. The smoke is then passed through water which cools it before it is inhaled.
  • Pipes – smoking device with a bowl, where the tobacco is placed, which is connected to a stem, through which the tobacco smoke is inhaled. Pipes are made of slate or clay.

Smokeless tobacco

Tobacco can also be consumed without smoke, usually orally or nasally. Smokeless tobacco includes dry snuff, moist snuff and chewing tobacco. Dry snuff is tobacco in a powdered form which is inhaled and absorbed through nasal mucosa. Moist snuff is ground tobacco which is held in the mouth between the cheek and the gum and absorbed. Chewing tobacco can be chewed, sucked or just held in the mouth like moist snuff.

Although smoke is not ingested into the lungs this does not mean that the tobacco is not dangerous. The consumer with still ingest dangerous chemicals from the leaf, leading to addiction and cancers.

The tobacco industry in Australia

There are three overseas tobacco companies that supply Australia with its tobacco supply including British American Tobacco Australia (BATA), Phillip Morris International (PMA) and Imperial Tobacco Australia (ITA). None of these companies are currently listed on the Australian Stock Exchange.

TobaccoTobacco consumption in Australia is decreasing; in 2007 16.6% of Australians over 14 smoked daily which is almost 2% less than 2001. This is not to say the tobacco industry is not a huge and profitable industry 1,100 packs of 25 cigarettes are sold in Australia every minute! Approximately 2,000 people are employed in the three largest tobacco companies in Australia which made a combined net profit after taxes of $586 million in 2007.

In 2004, Australia tobacco sales accounted for 7% of all sales from supermarkets and grocers and 4.7% of all retail sales, estimated to be worth $9.3 billion. Cigarettes made up the second largest product category in sales value in the Australian Grocery Industry in 2007 with consumers spending $4 billion. In convenience stores, cigarettes were the highest value product category and other tobacco products such as cigars and roll-your-own tobacco were ranked ninth. In 2007, tobacco brands Winfield and Longbeach generated an excess of $750 million in sales which made it one of the top selling brand names of all grocery products alongside Coca-Cola. Winfield is the most popular brand of cigarette in Australian adults and this trend is also seen in secondary students.

So while tobacco consumption is declining, the value of tobacco sales is increasing which is partly due to increased taxation on cigarette packs which accounts for around 70% of the price.

Tobacco today

Today the efforts of the government to campaign against tobacco smoking continue and are one of the most effective in the world with the daily smoking rates for people of 14 years sitting at 16.7% in 2007 down from 19.5% in 2001. Currently there are strict restrictions on smoking in public areas, a complete ban on tobacco advertisement and heavy health campaigning. That said smoking is still the largest preventable cause of death and disease in Australia.

More information

SmokingFor more information on smoking and its health effects, and some useful tools, videos and animations, see Smoking.



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Posted On: 4 August, 2010
Modified On: 12 August, 2010


Created by: myVMC