The Birth of Tobacco

The story goes that Native Americans had a word for that plant that now gets packed into cigarettes. That story is wrong.

If you haven’t already, give a listen to Bob Garfield’s trenchant, two-part Bully Pulpit series on the tobacco industry’s embrace of a smoke-free future, touting e-cigarettes with some of the same tactics it used in marketing the combustible variety.

For more than a century, Big Tobacco has been blowing smoke rings of dissemblance around a public too addicted to nicotine to take notice. But long before Joe Camel lumbered onto the scene with Marlboro Man and Virginia Slims, a man named Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés was blowing smoke too. It turns out that the story of the word tobacco itself was built, rather fittingly, upon false information.

Oviedo arrived in the New World in the early 16th century, and spent several subsequent decades colonizing and chronicling what we now call the West Indies and Central America. Through his Historia general y natural de las Indias, Oviedo introduced to his fellow Europeans back home — much to their relaxation and delectation — the hammock, the pineapple, and, to their great detriment, tobacco.

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