Mapping Tobacco Use Now and in 1500

Tobacco use is plummeting over most of the world. This decline is easily seen on a map showing the change in the percentage of the adult population that uses tobacco from 2000 to 2020. If the World Health Organization data used to make this map are accurate, only five reporting countries saw an increase in tobacco users during this period: Croatia, Jordan, Oman, Republic of Congo, and Indonesia. Several countries, most notably China and France, reported small drops. But most saw major declines; in Bolivia, the percentage of adult tobacco users went from 37.1 to 12.7.

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The regional patterns found on this map are intriguing. Tobacco use declined sharply over most of Africa, which already had relatively low rates of consumption. The increase in the Republic of Congo is therefore anomalous. Most of Latin America also saw a major decline in tobacco use. The patterns in Europe are more mixed, with sharp drops characterizing the north but with more modest declines elsewhere –  and a surprising increase in Croatia. Substantial drops are also evident in South Asia, particularly India. The same pattern is found in Southeast Asia, with the notable exception of Indonesia. In contrast, most of the Middle East and North Africa reported more modest declines, or, in the case of Jordan and Oman, small increases.

As the second map shows, many countries had high rates of tobacco use in 2000, with quite a few exceeding 50% of the adult population. Because tobacco consumption tends to be gender biased, in some countries substantial majorities of men were users at this time, Burma (Myanmar) most notably. South Asia also reported high rates of tobacco consumption a quarter century ago. Central and Eastern Europe was another area of widespread consumption, focused on the Balkans. Latin America reported more variable patterns, with low rates of use in Guatemala, Colombia, and Ecuador but with much higher rates in Chile and Cuba. In Africa the relatively high figure posted for Sierra Leone seems odd. Madagascar, a country of mixed African and Southeast Asian ancestry, intriguingly groups more with Southeast Asia than it does with Africa in regard to tobacco use.

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As the third map shows, the regional patterns of tobacco use found in 2020 are roughly similar to those found on the map of 2000, albeit at lower levels almost across the board. Several countries stand out for their persistently high levels of consumption, including Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Burma, and Greece.

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In the year 1500, tobacco use was largely confined to the Western Hemisphere. In the Eastern Hemisphere, it was found only in Australia. Indigenous Australians over a large portion of the continent chewed the leaves of several plants in the Nicotiana genus, as well as those of a related nicotine-containing plant, Duboisia hopwoodii. These leaves, mixed with ash, are called pituri.

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In the Western Hemisphere in 1500 tobacco use was ubiquitous, found almost everywhere except the high Arctic. Several species of the genus Nicotiana were widely cultivated and traded and served vital ritual, cultural, social, and even political functions. Some supposedly non-agricultural hunting and gathering societies grew tobacco, and others gathered wild tobacco leaves. The widely consumed species Nicotiana rustica was noted for its potency, with up to nine times more nicotine than N. tabacum as well as hallucinogenic harmala alkaloids. As a result, N. rustica was often used by shamans for religious experiences. Tobacco was also widely employed for medical purposes by indigenous peoples of North and South America. Such practices persist in some communities to this day. Despite its dangers, tobacco does have analgesic properties and several other demonstrable medical uses.

The geography of tobacco will be further explored in several forthcoming GeoCurrents posts.