A couple of years ago, I wrote an article entitled Health Benefits of Cigar Tobacco – Cigars and Medicine. The recent list of HPHC’s (harmful and potentially harmful constituents of tobacco and tobacco smoke) that the FDA published during August 2011, got me thinking that I need to remind people of some benefits of the tobacco plant – nicotiana tobaccum. The tobacco plant, Nicotiana, shares its name with the chemical compound nicotine, well, to be precise, the word nicotine came from the name of the plant. The plant got its name from Jean Nicot de Villemaain, the French ambassador to Portugal back in 1560. He sent tobacco and seeds to Paris from Brazil and promoted their use as medicine. This plant still has done a lot of good that most people either don’t know about or don’t want to know about. Tobacco leaves and the smoke generated when they are burned contain over 4 thousand chemicals, not just the list of 100 that the FDA threw together. Nicotine was first extracted in 1807 in Italy by a Gaspare Cerioli, who called it tobacco's "essential oil." Cerioli had just graduated medical school in 1806 and started his research as a student. The French chemist and pharmacist Louis-Nicolas Vauquelin made the same discovery in 1809 without knowledge of Cerioli's work. Vauquelin is most known for his discovery of beryllium that he extracted from an emerald (which is a form of the mineral beryl) using potassium in a platinum crucible. Okay, enough of the historical chemistry lesson.
In 1828, two University of Heidelberg students made a discovery. Wilhelm Heinrich Posselt was studying medicine and Karl Ludwig Reimann, a chemistry student were intrigued with the tobacco plant and ended up extracting the purest form of nicotine. They published and presented a paper to the medical faculty at Heidelberg in 1828 and fostered the continued research of medical uses of nicotine.
Now for some scientific medical data. The brain and nervous system are stimulated by small doses of nicotine and depressed by larger ones. Nicotine in large doses can also increase heart rate and blood pressure, and in small doses decrease both. I am not saying that you should intake small doses of nicotine, but in the words of the worlds first toxicologist, Theophrastis Bombastis Von Hohnheim Paracelsus – “the dose makes the poison”. Just to remind some of you about the history of tobacco, in the 15th century, tobacco was being used of by the indigenous populations in the New World. As many of you know this use of tobacco was first observed by Columbus and his crew. The plant was brought back to Europe. At that time, herbs of any kind were considered to have potential therapeutic properties. The tobacco plant was no exception and ended up being used to treat a wide range of conditions. The tobacco plant gained a reputation as a panacea for treating everything, so much so that some called it the ‘holy herb’ and ‘God's remedy’. The medical and scientific world of the day were very excited about the discovery.
There are over sixty species of Nicotiana. There are a few species of this plant that are native to Australia, however, most are indigenous to the Americas. Nicotiana tabacum, the plant now raised for commercial tobacco production, did originate in South America. The strongest of these plants, Nicotiana rustica, originally comes from North America. When Columbus found Native Americans growing and using tobacco, it was rarely used for leisure, but mostly treatment of various illnesses. Some of his sailors observed natives of Cuba and Haiti smoking the leaves, which gave way to the first primitive cigars. The name tobacco was originally given to the plant in error. This word actually referred to the cane pipe, called a tabaco or tavaco, with two branches for the nostrils, which was used by the Native Americans for sniffing tobacco smoke. The tobacco itself was called petum, betum, cogioba, cohobba, quauhyetl, picietl or yietl, and all of these names appear later in herbal remedy preparation or pharmacopoeias, books on how to prepare medicines.
It took hundreds of years of medical research with tobacco to discover other medicinal use. In 1926, it was reported that, when patients with certain types of parkinsonism were treated with subcutaneous injections of nicotine extracted from Nicitiana Rustica, many of them showed immediate improvement. A controlled study was done and in several cases, the risk of Parkinson's disease was lower in smokers than in non-smokers. Other case studies also suggested a possible association between smoking, Alzheimer's disease and Tourette's syndrome.
For reasons I don’t know, people with mental illness are twice as likely to smoke, but, it really may be some benefit to them. In Cuba, during a tobacco blight in 1980, no one was allowed to smoke cigars. However, cigars and cigarettes were still given to patients in mental institutions because it had a calming effect on them.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, certain mental disorders such as ADHD, ADD and schizophrenia can experience positive effects from smoking. Doses of nicotine have a short-term normalization effect on electrical activity in the brain. And as I mentioned in an earlier article, Alzheimer and Dementia patients are being treated with nicotine to improve their cognitive abilities.
I hope that scientists keep researching the benefits of tobacco and that those who regulate the use of tobacco products do their homework before writing new laws that simply say – tobacco is bad for you because we said so.