I was watching a TV series (Godless) which is set in the Wild West in 1884. At some point they sing Don't forget the girls of LaBelle, which includes the following verses:

The Creole girl is a one-eyed queen

With a kiss as addictive as nicotine

It shocked me to see a depiction of a popular song in 1884 mention the addictive properties of nicotine. I know tobacco was known to be addictive from at least the 16th century, and that nicotine was first isolated from the tobacco plant in 1828. But that doesn't necessarily mean that it was known that it was nicotine in particular which was responsible for the addictive properties.

Is that verse a historical blunder or were the addictive properties of nicotine known by 1885?


It is a blunder, but there is a saving grace to it, even two. Nicotiana is the Latin name of tobacco, and it was in use as early as 16th century, and not just by botanists. Moreover, for the first 50 years tobacco was seen as a medicinal herb (after its primary use by American Indians) rather than a recreational drug. Fletcher in The History of Nicotine quotes one John Frampton the merchant, who wrote in 1577:

"Nicotiane [the plant], although it bee not long since it hath beene knowen in Fraunce, not-withstanding it deserveth Palme and Price emong all other Medicinable herbes, it deserveth to standc in the first rancke, by reason of his singular vertues, and as it were almost to be had in admiration, as hereafter you shall understande."

As mentioned in the OP, the addictiveness (in a loose sense of the word) of tobacco was realized soon after it started to be used recreationally. Francis Bacon wrote in Historia vitae et mortis (1623)

"In our time the use of tobacco is growing greatly and conquers men with a certain secret pleasure, so that those who have once become accustomed thereto can later hardly be restrained therefrom."

So if we charitably interpret the reference to "nicotine" as a reference to the herb Godless would be fine. It is unlikely that they had that in mind though.

But there is more room for charity. After a near miss with discovering nicotine the alkaloid by Vauquelin in 1809 (he attributed its alcalinity to ammonia contamination) in 1828 the University of Heidelberg offered a prize for the best paper on the active principle of tobacco and its physiological action. The prize was won by a paper written by two young students, Posselt and Reimann (Chemische Untersuchungen des Tabaks und Darstellung des eigenhumlichen wirksamen Principes dieser Pflanze. Geigers Magazin der Pharmazie 1828;24: 138-61). The paper was met with skepticism that a pure alkaloid could be liquid, and the result was only accepted in 1837, when Henry and Boutron-Charlard confirmed it. Since tobacco was known to be addictive and the nicotine was its "active principle", applying "addictive" to nicotine directly was not out of bounds by 1885. Although the adjective more commonly used with "nicotine" in the 19th century was "poisonous".

On the other hand, addiction and addictiveness, of nicotine in particular, in the modern technical sense (going beyond mere bad habit) is appropriately recent. Here is from Historical and Current Perspective on Tobacco use and Nicotine Addiction by Dani and Balfour:

"Scientific progress indicating that tobacco smoke is addictive post-dates the first evidence in the early 1950s that smoking was associated with a substantially increased incidence of lung cancer. Initially, tobacco smoking was seen as a habit, but by 1971 researchers were beginning to recognize that many smokers were addicted to nicotine present in tobacco smoke. Much of the work focused on the evidence that chronic or repeated exposure to nicotine results in a withdrawal effect if the drug is precipitously withheld. By the 1980s, the validity of the nicotine dependence hypothesis was becoming more widely accepted, and the concept of using nicotine replacement therapy to aid successful cessation attempts had moved to the fore. This period also saw the development of tests that could measure the degree of tobacco dependence."

  • $\begingroup$ OCR artifact correction: "Chemische Untersuchungen des Tabaks und Darstellung des eigenthümlichen wirksamen Princips dieser Pflanze", Geigers Magazin der Pharmacie. The publication was founded by the pharmacist Georg Friedrich Hänle in 1823 and originally published in Karlsruhe. After his death in 1824 it was edited by Philipp Lorenz Geiger and published in Heidelberg. Justus Liebig took over in 1832 and renamed the publication to Annalen der Pharmacie. $\endgroup$ – njuffa Dec 14 '20 at 7:12
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    $\begingroup$ What a thorough answer, thank you very much! The word "nicotine" sounded off, but I never thought of questioning the use of addictiveness! $\endgroup$ – user2891462 Dec 14 '20 at 10:54

According to discover magazine:

Tobacco kills hundreds of thousands of people every year but the addictive substance has a complex history. For many Native Americans tobacco has been ritually for hundreds of years. Now researchers have shown that they were smoking tobacco a thousand years before European fur-traders arrived ...


For many native people, tobacco use was historically associated with sacred ceremonies and only certain tribal members smoked a limited amount of the plant. Now 34% of Idaho American Indians smoke tobacco according to a 2015 survey by the Idaho Department of Work & Health.

This is confirmed in a 2018 report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States by Tushingham et al in 2018, where they report

Dried trade tobacco, much more potent than any native smoke variety, was conveyed in sizable, easy to carry bundles, known as 'twists' or 'carrots'. Its use spread like wildfire ...

This shows that an important factor was the commodification of tobacco by the migration of Europeans, a highly commercialised and mercantile civilisation into the Americas. This is one reason that one Native American site, Keeping it Sacred states:

In many teachings, the smoke from burned tobacco has the purpose of carrying thoughts to the Spirit World or the Creator and when used appropriately traditional tobacco is not associated with addiction or with adverse health impacts

A useful comparison is to see how alcohol, a traditional drink within European communities, circumscribed by social practises and used sacramentally within Roman Catholic communities has impacted Native American communities. According to the American Addiction Centre

Native Americans experience [alcohol] abuse and addiction at much higher rates than other ethnic communities ...

It's likely that Native American communities did not have the social & cultural knowledge in how to handle alcohol: It was not part of their ceremonies nor in how they relaxed.

All this shows that an important factor that has been neglected in the study of nicotine addiction is its social, cultural & religious context and the commodification of tobacco to a potent drug - think of how drug cartels now with cannabis have bred skunk, a much stronger version of traditional cannabis.

The actual isolation of nicotine as a chemical was in 1828 by Posselt & Reimann who believed it to be a poison. There are trace quantities (millionths of a percent) also in potatoes, eggplants and tomatoes.

  • $\begingroup$ The first mention of cannabis is not an error, but the second one was. It should have been nicotine. Its fixed now. Thanks for pointing this out. $\endgroup$ – Mozibur Ullah Dec 14 '20 at 13:16
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    $\begingroup$ Interesting history, but doesn't appear to address the specific question at hand $\endgroup$ – Carl Witthoft Dec 14 '20 at 13:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Carl Witthoft: I'm pointing out a wider context within which the question sits. The framing of the question is not quite right in my opinion. And its within that framing that I answer the question. The real essence of the matter is that Europeans are psychogically addicted to capitalism. $\endgroup$ – Mozibur Ullah Dec 14 '20 at 14:05
  • $\begingroup$ @Gerald Edgar: It's more of a typo than an error. The reason I mentioned cannabis is to compare how drug cartels have bred more potent strains of cannabis with how tobacco traders did the same with tobacco. The term 'drug cartel' is not a mistake either. Another useful comparison was the opium trade that the British engaged in China against the express wishes of their government. $\endgroup$ – Mozibur Ullah Dec 14 '20 at 14:05
  • $\begingroup$ @Gerald Edgar: I'd also say that describing a typo as an error is an error on your part. Errors are generally seen to be more substantative than mere typos. $\endgroup$ – Mozibur Ullah Dec 14 '20 at 14:51

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