Other sections found within "Dangers of Tobacco":
Addiction // Cancer // Lung and Heart Disease // Fatigue and Headache
Second-hand Smoke // Other Dangers >> Coffin Nails Homepage & Introduction

Observations of tobacco’s habit-forming nature date back centuries, although it was not formally declared to be addictive by the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office until the 1980s.  In 1527, Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish missionary, noted the habitual use of tobacco among the Indians in South America, and their inability to stop.  In 1604, King James I of Great Britain penned a pamphlet, A Counterblaste to Tobacco, in which he condemned tobacco use for several reasons, including its addictive property.  He argued that tobacco was “bewitching” to its users, who could no more go without it than they could go without meat or sleep, and compared chronic users to alcoholics.  To combat the problem, the monarch raised the tax on tobacco imports and banned domestic production (although it continued).  In 1610, Sir Francis Bacon remarked, “The use of tobacco is growing greatly and conquers men with a certain secret pleasure, so that those who have become accustomed can hardly be restrained.”

In 1798, Dr. Benjamin Rush, the noted American physician, emphasized the similarity between habitual tobacco and alcohol use in his Observations Upon the Influence of the Habitual Use of Tobacco.  In 1828, two German medical students, Ludwig Reimann and Wilhelm Heinrich, wrote dissertations on the effects of nicotine in which both concluded that the ingredient found in tobacco was a “dangerous poison.”  Health reformers in the United States argued that tobacco was poisonous and addictive.  It is “the most deadly, most noxious poison,” wrote Dr. Caleb Ticknor in 1836.

Leaders in the anti-tobacco movement, such as Edward Hitchcock of Amherst College and the Reverend George Trask, considered the substance to be as habit-forming as alcohol and dangerous even when used in moderation.  On the latter point they countered arguments by those who insisted that moderate use of tobacco by adult men was not harmful, and could be beneficial.  In 1853, Dr. William Alcott, in The Physical and Moral Effects of Using Tobacco as a Luxury, wrote of the “tobacco drunkard” and employed an analogy from the then highly controversial topic of slavery:  “Most emphatically does tobacco enslave its votaries [i.e., users]… It is the uniform testimony of those who have attempted to emancipate themselves from their attachment and bondage to tobacco, that to break the chains in which they are bound, requires the sternest efforts of reason, conscience, and the will.”  A humorous verse, “Tobacco and I,” in the July 9, 1859 issue of Harper’s Weekly states that “Old Nick”—i.e., the Devil—is in nicotine, and that the author’s tobacco habit, “dulls the sense, defiles the breath/ Depraves the taste, depletes the purse;/ Poisons the very air with death…”

The problem of the tobacco habit (or, specifically, nicotine addiction) was reflected in the advertisements in Harper’s Weekly, where various remedies were marketed over the years.  Many of these were probably “quack” cures whose promoters were more interested in removing users’ money rather than their addiction.  Some products may have been concocted with sincere intent, but the ingredients of all are difficult or impossible to discern.  The first tobacco-cure advertisement appeared in the issue of April 26, 1862, a time when many young men, particularly from the North, were being exposed to the habit for the first time during their military service in the Civil War.  Tobacco was included in the rations of both Union and Confederate servicemen.  As they marched across the South, Northerners developed a taste for the region’s “Bright” tobacco, the mild and sweet taste of which encouraged widespread use and inhaling when smoked.  The text of the first advertisement in April 1862 was simple and brief, but appealed directly to those who desired to have their “craving for tobacco cured”; it was buried at the bottom of a page which also included ads for artificial legs, guns, and Confederate prison memoirs.

An advertisement in the January 4, 1868 issue of Harper’s Weekly offered a free recipe for “A New Cure:  Tobacco Antidote,” which had allegedly helped thousands kick the habit.  A different tactic was taken in an advertisement appearing the next year, which emphasized a time-tested method of 60 years.  The text was overlaid with an attention-grabbing X, supposedly trademarked, and warned against “humbug imitations.”  The mysterious mixture was marketed as created and distributed by physicians and sold by “all druggists,” thus granting it the apparent authority of medical experts.

In the 1880s, Horsford’s Acid Phosphate was advertised as toothpaste, as well as a cure for habitual drinking and, here, tobacco use.  The testimony of a physician claimed that the product helped the nervous condition caused “by the toxic action of tobacco.”  The deadliness of the tobacco habit was attested in an advertisement headline from the April 15, 1893 issue:  “Don’t Tobacco Spit or Smoke Your Life Away.”  It offered a booklet about No-To-Bac and provided a money-back guarantee if not cured of the addiction.   An advertisement in the December 29, 1894 issue gave the user an easy way out:  “Don’t Stop Tobacco:  How to Cure Yourself While Using It.”  Marketed as a scientific product developed by a Berlin physician, Baco-Curo purported to remove nicotine from the addict’s system naturally, letting him continue using tobacco while eliminating nicotine dependence.

Because of nicotine, tobacco was often categorized with other drugs, particularly narcotics.  In 1885, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) established a Department of Narcotics, which included tobacco.  Its top priority status was revealed in the 1887 annual report of the Kentucky WCTU, which handed out 9,000 pamphlets on the dangers of tobacco, but just 100 on opium.

In the November 7, 1896 issue of Harper’s Weekly, an advertisement for the Keeley Cure held out hope for those suffering from alcohol, opium, or tobacco addiction.  Dr. Leslie E. Keeley founded the first Keeley Institute in Dwight, Illinois, in 1879.  By the end of the century, there were 200 branches across the country and, as the ad attested, the federal government had adopted its treatment in veterans’ homes and seven state governments had endorsed its use.  Patients were injected with an undoubtedly ineffective solution grandly called “Double Chloride of Gold” (a chemically impossible compound).  However, the Keeley Institute’s innovation of group therapy was helpful to some and a precursor of methods adopted later by Alcoholic Anonymous and other substance-abuse programs.

The most dramatic advertisement for an anti-tobacco remedy is a full-page, illustrated copy for No-To-Bac in the April 11, 1896 issue of Harper’s Weekly.  It features a center picture of King No-To-Bac, partially clad with the armor and armaments of an ancient Roman warrior, standing triumphantly on the slain corpse of Nicotine.  Warning that tobacco was at work on a user’s heart, nerves, manhood, and lifespan, the product was promoted as a “Guaranteed Tobacco Habit Cure.”  Under the title “Coffin Nails,” a slang term for cigarettes indicating their deadly nature, the three-column text discussed the hazards of tobacco.  It rejected the common distinction made between excessive and moderate use.  The ad’s particular focus was the rising popularity of cigarettes among boys, and it took a familiar nineteenth-century stance that tobacco was a “gateway” drug, which encouraged the use of stronger substances, such as alcohol, morphine, and narcotics, as well as criminal behavior.  The narrative ended with the words of a professional cyclist (a new, wildly popular sport in the 1890s) and other sportsmen explaining how smoking impaired athletic performance.  In that way, it anticipated public service announcements made today by well-known athletes and other celebrities.  The ad concluded with four testimonials of the effectiveness of No-To-Bac, including one customer who claimed the product cured him of the tobacco habit after the Keeley treatment failed.

In the late-nineteenth century, the mental or addictive effect of tobacco on its users was noted in state court decisions, including Carver v. the State of Indiana (1879), The State of Indiana v. Mueller (1881), and The State of Missouri v. Ohmer (1889).

In 1889, John Newport Langley and William Dickinson discovered that nicotine selectively blocks nerve impulses, thus demonstrating scientifically for the first time that nicotine affects the nervous system.  Although not the focus of their research, the study opened the possibility that nicotine interrupts brain mechanisms in a way that promotes addiction.

As cigarettes become more popular at the turn of the century, and their negative effects on the behavior of smokers, such as nervousness and irritability, were observed, some suspected that the tobacco in the product was mixed with narcotics, such as opium or cocaine.  An article, “Science vs. Prejudice,” in the February 5, 1898 issue of Harper’s Weekly reported on a conference of the Medico-Legal Society at which cigarette smokers were reassured that the products contain only tobacco.  Nevertheless, as mentioned above, others numbered nicotine itself among narcotics.  Between 1889 and 1907, two states declared cigarettes to be narcotic and four states banned their sale.  Nicotine was originally listed as an adulterated drug under the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 until lobbying by tobacco companies resulted in its removal.

In the mid-twentieth century, articles in medical journals, such as The Lancet (1942) and the American Journal of Psychiatry (1963), began to label tobacco use as addictive.  However, the groundbreaking Surgeon General’s Report of 1964, which identified tobacco as cancer-causing, stopped short of calling it addictive.  The committee concluded that the “tobacco habit should be characterized as an habituation rather than an addiction.”  Finally, in 1986, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop declared that smokeless tobacco was addictive, and in 1988, that nicotine was “a powerfully addicting drug.”  The latter was based on more than 2,000 scientific studies, which made it “clear that … cigarettes and other form of tobacco are addicting and that actions of nicotine provide the pharmacologic basis of tobacco addiction…”

Harper's Weekly References
1)  July 9, 1859, p. 443, c. 3
verse, “Tobacco and I,” addiction, smoking, and women using snuff

2)  April 26, 1862, p. 272, c. 3
ad for curing the craving for tobacco [first such ad]

3)  January 4, 1868, p. 16, c. 1
ad, “A New Cure:  Tobacco Antidote,” which “restores sufferers from its deadly effects to robust health”

4)  February 13, 1869, p. 112, c. 3
ad, “Tobacco Antidote”

5)  October 4, 1884, p. 660, c. 1
ad, help against the toxic effect of tobacco 

6)  April 15, 1893, p. 361, c. 1
ad, “Don’t Tobacco Spit or Smoke Your Life Away”

7)  December 29, 1894, p. 1251, c. 4
ad, “Don’t Stop Tobacco,” use  “cure” while still using

8)  November 7, 1896, p. 1107, c. 3-4
illustrated ad for the Keeley Treatment

9)  April 11, 1896, p. 368
ad, “Coffin Nails,” full page, illustrated

10)  February 5, 1898, p. 143
news story, “Science vs. Prejudice”

Sources Consulted
Borio, Gene, “The History of Tobacco” History Net,

“Here Today, Here Tomorrow:  Varieties of Medical Ephemera,” The Online Version of an Exhibit Held at the National Library of Medicine May 22 through September 11, 1995, National Institutes of Health,

“The Keeley Institute,”

King James I of Great Britain, Counterblasteto Tobacco,

Nicotine Addiction in Britain, Royal College of Physicians,

“The 1964 Report on Smoking and Health,” Reports of the Surgeon General, National Library of Medicine, or

Swan, Neil, “Nicotine Disrupts the Brain's Pleasure Circuit,” NIDA Notes, vol. 13, no. 3, 1998, National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health,

Tate, Cassandra, Cigarette Wars:  The Triumph of the Little White Slaver (NY:  Oxford UP, 1999)

“Tobacco Addiction Data, 1527-1998”

Trask, George, Tobacco for American Lads,”


Other sections found within "Dangers of Tobacco":
Addiction // Cancer // Lung and Heart Disease // Fatigue and Headache
Second-hand Smoke // Other Dangers >> Coffin Nails Homepage & Introduction





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