Tobacco as Medicine

The first published illustration of Nicotiana tabacum by Pena and De L’Obel, 1570–1571 (shrpium adversana nova: London).

Tobacco can be used for medicinal purposes, however, the ongoing American war on smoking has all but obscured this important aspect of ancient plant.

Tobacco is considered to be an indigenous plant of the Americas and over 60 species are known to exist.  Columbus first ran across cultivated tobacco in 1492.   The word tobacco is a misnomer as the original names given to the various species included petum, betum, cogioba, cohobba, quauhyetl, picietl and yietl.

A mixture of powdered tobacco has long been used as a teeth whitener in India.  In 1992 and again in 1997 this type of nicotine usage was supposed to be permanently outlawed due to a high incident of oral cancer in India.  According a 2012 study that appeared in the Journal of Toxicology entitled Nicotine Contents in Some Commonly Used Toothpastes and Toothpowders: A Present Scenario:

India’s share of the global burden of tobacco-induced disease and death is substantial. India has one of the highest rates of oral cancers in the world; 65% of all cancers in men and 33% of all cancers in women are tobacco related. Annual incidence of oral cancer is said to be 10 per 1,00,000 per males”

Tobacco toothpaste originating from India continues to be available online.

In the year 1500, Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvarez Cabral reported that in Brazil betum was being used to treat ulcerated abscesses, fistulas, sores, inveterate polyps and dozens of other ailments.   In 1529, Spanish missionary priest Bernadino de Sahagun recorded the medicinal uses of tobacco from four Mexican physicians.   Among those include the breathing of the odour of fresh green leaves of the plant to relieve persistent headaches and the rubbing of green or powdered leaves inside the mouth for cold and catarrh. Salt and crushed tobacco leaves were used to cure glands in the neck by rubbing into the spot where the root of the lesion had been cut out.  Other wounds and burns were cured in a similar fashion.

In the mid 1500’s, Tobacco seeds were therefore brought back to Europe and enthusiastically used in remedies for various ills to include those mentioned above and for the prevention of hunger and thirst.  In some cases it was used as a purgative and a narcotic.   Skin diseases were successfully healed with poultices rendered from ground up leaves.

In the 1600’s question began to arise over the poisonous properties inherent in the leaves.  In 1828 nicotine was isolated from the leaves and further properties were studied. An analysis of tobacco cures was undertaken in the 1958 in which published tobacco treatments appearing between 1785 and 1860.  Of the 128 cases reviewed, 97 had positive outcomes, 4 caused fatalities, 10 poisoned the patients and 17 produced mixed results.

A recipe for the use of tobacco as a cure-all poultice comes from Spanish physician Nicolás Bautista Monardes in his famous book entitled Historia medicinal de las cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales que sirven al uso de la medicina, as follows:

To ‘cleanse, incarnate, and knit together all maner of wounds’, ‘Take a pound of the freshe Leaves of the sayed Hearbe, stampe them and mingle tham with a newe Waxe, Rosine, common oyle, of each three ounces, let tham boyle altogether, untill the juice of the Nicotiane be consumed, then add thereto three ounces of Venise Turpentine, straine the same through a linen cloth, and keep it in Pottes to your use.’

Today tobacco usage is being studied as to its relationship with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

Sources: (J R Soc Med 2004;97:292–296)(J Toxicol 2012; 2012: 237506.)


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