Presented by: UT El Paso / Austin Cooperative Pharmacy Program & Paso del Norte Health Foundation


Compilation by Armando Gonzalez Stuart, PhD.

Botanical Family:

Solanaceae (Nightshade family)

Other Common Name:

Indian tobacco

Where is it found?

The tobacco plant is native to South America. It is currently grown in many tropical and subtropical areas of the world (Swerdlow, 2000).

Parts of the plant used:


How is it used?

Tobacco leaves have been used in what is now the American continent for approximately 8,000 years. The dried and wilted leaves of the plant have been used in shamanistic rituals dating back thousands of years (Foster and Johnson, 2004; Ott, 1996 ). The Mayan peoples of Mexico and parts of Central America inhaled tobacco smoke more than 2,000 years ago (Swerdlow, 2000). Additionally, tobacco has been used for medicinal purposes as well. Products made from the leaves were applied externally as poultices for boils or skin infections and sores, as well as for bruises and sprains. Ground tobacco leaves were also used as “snuff” (inhaled through the nose) for medicinal and ritualistic purposes. The practice caught on in Europe, where it became a “fashionable” practice, especially among men (Foster and Johnson, 2004; Swerdlow, 2000; Ott, 1996). However, as early as 1761, John Hill, a British botanist, suggested that tobacco snuff could be linked to cancer of the nose (Swerdlow, 2000). Teas made from tobacco leaves were used against intestinal worms, as a laxative, to induce vomiting (emetic), as an expectorant, for fainting and dizziness, as well as for headaches (Foster and Johnson, 2004; Swerdlow, 2000).

What is it used for?

The tobacco plant has been an important part of magical and religious rituals by Native American peoples for many centuries before the arrival of the Europeans (Ott, 1996; Swerdlow, 2000; Foster and Johnson, 2004).
According to the Centers for Disease Control or CDC (2015), the use of tobacco is an important cause of premature death and disease around the world. It estimates that approximately six million people die each year from tobacco use. This number includes more than half a million persons (600,000) who die from secondhand smoke. Data from the United States show that approximately 42.1 million persons (about one in five adults) smoke. Additionally, approximately 480,000 people die prematurely from illnesses related to tobacco smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke.
The main addictive substance contained in tobacco is an alkaloid known as nicotine. Nicotine is a highly poisonous substance that is also used as an insecticide (Stenersen, 2004). Estimates regarding the potential for addiction of various harmful substances suggest that smoked tobacco is the most addictive commonly used drug, somewhat even more so than heroin and alcohol. Furthermore, it is estimated that, in the United Kingdom (UK), tobacco use originates up to 40% of all hospital illness and more than half (60%) of drug-related deaths ( Nutt et al., 2007). Smoking tobacco beyond the age of 30 years decreases life expectancy by approximately 10 years (Doll et al., 2004) and is the most common cause of drug-related fatalities in the UK. This situation not only places a sizeable burden on the cost of any nation’s health services, but also possesses serious societal damaging effects.
Illustration: Public domain / Wikipedia Nicotine – chemical structure

With regard to cigarettes purportedly made from “organic tobacco”, there seems to be a false perception by some people that they are safer compared to common tobacco. For this reason, Byron et al (2015) conducted a study in the Southern United States to assess adolescents' and adults' perceptions of a cigarette advertisement that contained descriptors including 'natural', 'organic' and 'additive-free' as well as related disclaimers. The results of the study showed that many participants were skeptical or confused about the descriptors stating “organic”, “natural”, and “additive-free” on the cigarette ads. Moreover, many of the study participants perceived the brand of “organic” cigarettes as being less harmful than other cigarettes, even though the advertisement contained disclaimers that clearly stated that the “organic” cigarettes were not safer. The authors of the study concluded that disclaimers intended to prevent consumers from attributing a health benefit to cigarettes labeled as “organic” “additive-free'' or “natural” may be not be sufficient.

Safety / Precautions

  • Although tobacco has been part of ceremonial and healing practices for many centuries by various indigenous peoples, its use poses serious risks for health
  • Tobacco is recognized as a highly addictive substance that is linked to cancer as well as other diseases
  • Smoking tobacco is associated with various serious health problems including emphysema, lung cancer, and cardiovascular disease, among many others
  • Chewing tobacco is associated with cancer of the mouth, esophagus, throat, tongue, larynx, and pharynx
  • Tobacco should not be used in any form during pregnancy and lactation

Before you decide to take any medicinal herb or herbal supplement, be sure to consult with a health care professional first. Avoid self-medication and self-diagnosis: Always be on the safe side!


Byron MJ, Baig SA, Moracco KE, Brewer NT. Adolescents' and adults' perceptions of 'natural', 'organic' and 'additive-free' cigarettes, and the required disclaimers. Tob Control. 2015 Dec 1. pii: tobaccocontrol-2015-052560. doi: 10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2015-052560. [Epub ahead of print]

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tobacco Use. Retrieved December 16, 2015.

Doll R, Peto R, Boreham J, Sutherland I. Mortality in relation to smoking: 50 years’ observations on male British doctors. BMJ 2004; 328: 1519–28.

Foster S., Johnson R. Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine.
Washington, D.C.: National Geographic; 2004; pp. 358-359.

Nutt D, King LA, Saulsbury W, Blakemore C. Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse. Lancet. 2007; 369(9566):1047-53.

Ott J. Pharmacotheon 2nd ed.
Kennewick, WA: Natural Products Press; 1996; pp. 373-376.

Stenersen J. Chemical Pesticides: Mode of Action and Toxicology.
Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 2004; pp. 4, 16.

Swerdlow J. Nature’s Medicine, Plants that Heal.
Washington, D.C.: National Geographic; 2000; pp. 118-122, 371.