|54 Tobacco Catches Fire 1535
When French explorer Jacques Cartier first partook of the mysterious weed he had observed the Iroquoians smoking along the St. Lawrence River, he could not have anticipated the impact tobacco would have in centuries to come. "When we tried to use the smoke," Cartier wrote in 1535, "we found it bit our tongues like pepper." Cartier's description is the most definitive early account of a European experimenting with tobacco in the New World. For thousands of years the native people of the Americas had used tobacco for medicinal and spiritual purposes. Explorers brought the plant back to Europe, where it was promoted as a panacea for everything from gonorrhea to flatulence. It was even used as a dentifrice to whiten teeth. By the beginning of the 17th century, rising demand enabled England's struggling settlement in Jamestown to grow the Colonies' first successful crop. Tobacco use spread across the globe, becoming an important part of every culture it touched. But only after cigarettes became popular in the mid-1800s and rolling machines enabled mass production in the 1880s were health concerns raised. In 1964 the U.S. Surgeon General established that cigarette smoking is a cause of cancer and other diseases. Today, about three million people a year die of tobacco-related illnesses.
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