Text by Henrylito D. Tacio
Photos: WHO and Rhoy Cobilla
When Italian explorer and navigator Christopher Columbus returned to Spain after discovering America in 1492, one of the things he brought back was tobacco. Five hundred years later, smoking has become a worldwide habit, and hundreds of millions of people are now using tobacco in various forms.
History records showed that tobacco was introduced in the Philippines in the late 16th century during the era of the Spanish colonization when the Augustinians brought cigar tobacco seeds to the colony for cultivation. When William Dampier visited Mindanao in 1686, he observed that smoking was already a widespread custom.
These days, tobacco use is likened to “slow-motion suicide,” to quote the words of Dr. Halfdan Mahler, former director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) of the United Nations. “Smoking is hazardous to your health,” the US Surgeon General said.
Tobacco, known in the science world as Nicotiana tabacum, “has always had negative press,” Danny Ebelhar, an American tobacco farmer from Owensboro, was quoted as saying by Bloomberg News. “But now, it may come back to be a benefit to mankind.”
One beneficiary is agriculture. In fact, some Filipino farmers are finding tobacco as an ally against pests. Take the case of 35-year-old Serapion Mariano, who has been growing corn for almost a decade now in his farm lot in Bansalan, Davao del Sur. Like other crops he used to plant before, corn is susceptible to attacks of insects and diseases.
One of the problems he has encountered lately is the common stalk borer. In the past, Mariano used chemical pesticides to destroy the insects that attacked his crops. But after attending two-day training on organic farming at the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC) in Kinuskusan, Bansalan, Davao del Sur, he found out that there’s a better way of getting rid of the insects.
“One of the best ways to eradicate the insects is by using tobacco spray,” Mariano said. Here’s what he did. He boiled 250 grams of dried tobacco leaves and stems in four liters of water for 20 minutes. After that, he allowed the water to cool and then filtered it through a layered cotton cloth. He added four more liters of water to the solution and 50 grams of bar soap. He then poured the solution into corn funnels to kill stalk borers.
According to MBRLC technicians, the tobacco solution can also be applied as a soil drench around plants to kill cutworms. It can be used to spray beans to prevent rust disease and also to control aphids, beetles, cabbage worms, caterpillars, grain weevils, leaf miners, mites, stem borers, and thrips.
The tobacco solution, MBRLC technicians claimed, is especially effective against biting or sucking insects. When applied weekly with a brush, it is effective against ticks and fleas in cattle.
The Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO) has developed another kind of tobacco spray. One kilogram of crushed or bruised tobacco stalks and leaves are soaked in 15 liters of water for 24 hours. The solution is then filtered, and three to five tablespoons of liquid soap are added. It is sprayed immediately on plants.
“Use tobacco sprays in the evening to allow them to work in the night,” the Florida-based ECHO reminds. “And in general, do not spray potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant or any plant in the Solanaceae family in order to prevent the spread of viruses.”
Another warning from ECHO: “Do not let people or animals drink the solution, and when spraying, wear protective clothing – especially a mask, or apply solutions with a watering can only. Do not eat vegetables within four days of application and wash them carefully when you do.”
“For centuries, gardeners (in the United States) have used home-made mixtures of tobacco and water as a natural pesticide to kill insect pests,” the Science Daily reported.
“By simply soaking as little as a cigarette amount of tobacco in a quart of water and allowing it to soak overnight, the nicotine released in the water will create an all-purpose insect repellent,” wrote Tess Pennington for readynutrition.com.
One garden nuisance is the aphids. Pennington suggested getting rid of them by mixing the following: one cup of powdered garlic, a cup of compost, and one cup of tobacco. “Blend this mixture into the soil around the base of your aphid-infested plants,” she said.
In Germany, the journal Green Chemistry reported that a team from Technical University in Munich had isolated the said chemical from tobacco leaves. “Using (the said) chemical, the scientists created a biodegradable, non-toxic, and environment-friendly repellant that can be sprayed directly onto crops of all types,” wrote Ben Coxworth in New Atlas.
In laboratory tests, aphids passed over plants that were treated with the spray, going instead for untreated plants. And as a side benefit, the repellant also kills several types of gram-positive bacteria that are harmful to human beings.
In the Philippines, the National Tobacco Administration (NTA) of the Department of Agriculture has discovered that tobacco dust can help lessen the population of nuisance snails that inhabit fishponds and fish cages.
A team of researchers from the Iloilo-based Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center conducted field testing in fishponds in Bulacan, Pampanga, Bataan, Pangasinan, and Ilocos Sur to know the efficacy of tobacco dust.
The findings confirmed it. “Tobacco dust is organic, readily degradable, and environment-friendly,” the NTA said in a press statement. “The absence of pesticide residues contributes to the marketability and exportability of local fish and ensures consumer safety, aside from being free from chemical residues.”
But it’s not only in agriculture that benefits from tobacco but medicine as well. “Tobacco, divine, rare super excellent tobacco, which goes far beyond all panaceas, potable gold and philosopher’s stones, a sovereign remedy to all diseases,” English author Robert Burton once said.
For centuries, tobacco was hailed for its myriad of uses and medical cures. American Indians, for one, used tobacco as a pain reliever for ear earaches, toothaches, and as a poultice. They also used it for rattlesnakes; they believed tobacco nicotine would help relieve pain as well as help draw out the poison and heal the snake wound. After the venom had been sucked out, chewed tobacco leaves could be applied to cuts or bound on the bite with a bandage.
Filipinos have also been using tobacco as a medicinal plant. The website of the Healing Wonders of Philippine Medicinal Plants gives brief information: “The (tobacco) leaves are antispasmodic, discutient, diuretic, emetic, expectorant, irritant, narcotic, sedative and sialagogue. They are used externally in the treatment of rheumatic swelling, skin diseases, and scorpion stings.
“Wet tobacco leaves can be applied to stings in order to relieve the pain,” the website said. “They are also a certain cure for painful piles. A homeopathic remedy is made from the dried leaves. It is used in the treatment of nausea and travel sickness.”
People with mental illness are twice as likely to smoke. The good thing is that they may get some benefits from their habit. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that people who suffer from mental disorders such as attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia, and the like may experience positive effects from smoking.
The medical profession found out that doses of nicotine – a potent parasympathomimetic alkaloid and considered a stimulant drug – have a short-term normalization effect on the EEG (electrical activity in the brain). “Nicotine has long been a useful tool for researchers interested in probing the nervous system,” Dr. Ovid Pomerleau, director of the Behavioral Medicine Program of the University of Michigan, was quoted as saying.
There are studies, mostly conducted in the United States, which showed that nicotine could normalize some of the psychophysiological deficits seen in patients with schizophrenia, a long-term mental disorder characterized by loss of contact with reality, hallucinations, delusions, and abnormal thinking.
“We did not set out to study nicotine; we set out to study schizophrenia,” explained Dr. Robert Freedman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado. “But anyone who spends any time with schizophrenia soon realizes that they smoke a great deal. Indeed, a much higher percentage of people with schizophrenia, both male and female, are heavy smokers than in the general population, and they smoke the higher tar brands.”
Another good news: smoking lowers the risk of obesity, a medical condition in which excess body fat has accumulated to the extent that it may have a negative effect on health. Thanks to nicotine, which researchers found out to be an “appetite suppressant.” The result of the study was published in the journal Physiology & Behavior in 2011.
The relationship between smoking and weight control, however, is a little bit complicated. “Nicotine itself acts as both a stimulant and appetite suppressant, and the act of smoking triggers behavior modification that prompts smokers to snack less,” wrote Christopher Wanjek in an article published on the website of Live Science. “Smoking also might make food less tasty for some smokers, further curbing appetite.”
Yes, tobacco is not only for smoking. “Good food, good sex, good digestion, and good sleep: To these basic animal pleasures, man has added nothing but the good cigarette,” said American journalist Mignon McLaughlin.