When the first Europeans arrived in what is now Mississippi in the sixteenth century, they found that Native Americans were using tobacco. In fact, they had done so for social, religious, and healing purposes as far back as 3000 BC.
Tobacco became the first major crop the French grew in the Natchez District in the early eighteenth century. Natchez tobacco was sent to New Orleans, then under Spanish control, for curing and shipment to Europe. Mississippi tobacco proved inferior to what was grown in Virginia, but Spanish authorities provided a subsidy for Natchez tobacco until 1790. With the subsidy’s demise, however, growing tobacco for export was not viable, and Natchez planters turned to other crops. Tobacco remained a secondary crop in some areas of Mississippi and was generally grown in garden patches for family use.
Agricultural census data from 1840 to 1910 confirm the minor role of tobacco in Mississippi agriculture. In 1880, the year of highest tobacco production, 414,663 pounds of tobacco were grown on 1,471 acres—less than .1 percent of all land in cultivation. By the twentieth century, tobacco had virtually disappeared from the Mississippi landscape, with six acres in production in 1929, only one tobacco farm in 1982, and seven tobacco farms in 2002. In 2012 Mississippi had no tobacco farms.
Early Mississippians smoked tobacco using pipes made from materials at hand, including wood, clay, stone, metal, or corncobs. Plug tobacco became popular in the early nineteenth century when tobacco-chewing Andrew Jackson emerged as a folk hero. The Mexican War (1846–48) brought Mississippi soldiers into contact with cigars. Snuff, another tobacco product, was popular in Europe but was viewed by Mississippi men as too effete, though the state’s rural women used it, preferring to dip it into their mouths rather than to sniff it. Mississippi women also smoked corncob pipes and chewed tobacco. By the twentieth century, however, cigarettes became the preferred tobacco product in Mississippi, as in the rest of American culture.
As tobacco use increased, the health hazards of smoking became more and more apparent. Concerns about the health implications of smoking had been raised as early as 1604, when King James I of Great Britain expressed alarm at the danger smoking posed to the lungs. In the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, opposition focused mainly on the nastiness of chewing, not the health implications of tobacco use.
Prior to the twentieth century, lung cancers were rare, and most physicians never treated them. In 1912 American physician Isaac Adler raised the idea that lung cancer was related to smoking. The post–World War I rise in popularity of cigarettes was accompanied by an explosion in the number of cases of lung cancer. Scientists in both Europe and the United States conducted studies on the effects of cigarette smoking, and in 1964 the US surgeon general issued a report that confirmed the close link between smoking and lung cancer. Scientific knowledge about the harmful effects of tobacco use has continued to develop over the ensuing half century, and studies have proven that cigarette smoking causes not only lung cancer but also heart disease; a variety of other cancers, including those affecting the pancreas, kidney, and cervix; and chronic lung disease. Smoking by pregnant women and new mothers contributes to low birth weight, sudden infant death syndrome, and spontaneous abortions.
Tobacco use in Mississippi has resulted in health problems of almost pandemic proportions. By 2016 Mississippi experienced 5,400 tobacco-related deaths each year and annual tobacco-related health care costs of $1.23 billion. The Medicaid program reported $319.7 million in tobacco-related costs in the state each year.
In 1994 the issue of tobacco-related Medicaid costs led Mississippi’s attorney general to initiate a lawsuit against the tobacco industry, seeking compensation for damage the industry had caused in the state. Three years later, Mississippi negotiated a $4 billion settlement with the tobacco industry. The other forty-nine states later reached similar settlements totaling $244 billion.
Tobacco is universally recognized as a consumer product with no utility. No credible resource has claimed that tobacco is of any value to consumers. All scientific evidence confirms the health hazards of tobacco use, yet Mississippians not only continue to use tobacco but do so at much higher rates than residents in other states. Whereas 15.1 percent of US adults smoked in 2015, 23.0 percent of Mississippi adults did so. Even more alarming, whereas 10.8 percent of high school students nationwide were smokers, that number was 15.2 percent in Mississippi.
- Vicki Betts, The Citizens Companion (1998)
- Allan M. Brant, The Cigarette Century (2007)
- Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids website, www.tobaccofreekids.org
- Charles Campbell, Judith Phillips, Denise Keller, and Ben Collins, Tobacco and Food Taxation: Policy Options for Mississippi (2007)
- Jordan Goodman, Tobacco in History: The Cultures of Dependence (1993)
- Richard Kluger, Ashes to Ashes: America’s Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris (1996)
- Richard A. McLemore, ed., History of Mississippi, 2 vols. (1973)
- R. C. Millen and D. A. Gill, 2004 Mississippi Health Assessment (2004)
- US Department of Agriculture, Census of Agriculture (1840–2012)