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Tobacco is not just for smoking

by janice jan

Text by Henrylito D. Tacio

Photos by Rhoy T. Cobilla

Segregating tobacco leaves

So much has been written about the ill-effects of tobacco. “Smoking is dangerous to your health,” so goes a popular advertisement.

But what most Filipinos don’t know is that there’s more to tobacco than just for smoking. In fact, there are a hundred or so uses of tobacco which are beneficial to man.

When Italian explorer and navigator Christopher Columbus discovered tobacco, it was actually meant for healing. Originally, tobacco was used for medicinal purposes and not for recreation as it is being known today.

“There is no written record in reference to tobacco prior to the 15th century. However, it is generally acknowledged that indigenous Americans used tobacco as a medicine,” said the Annals of Clinical and Laboratory Science.

The Peruvian Amazon is believed to be the geographical region where tobacco originally grew. Historical records show that Maestro Tabaquero – a traditional healer whose medical specialization focuses on tobacco-based treatment – considered tobacco as “a potent medicinal plant.” It was utilized topically or orally to treat a variety of health conditions.

“Although the leaves have an acrid taste, tobacco enjoyed widespread medicinal use from the beginning of the 16th century to the end of the 19th century,” said the annals, which is published by the Association of Clinical Scientists,Inc.

Health benefits from the past

Chewing tobacco – mixed betel nuts and lime in most Asian countries, including the Philippines – was recommended for toothache, gum diseases, aches in the throat, and mental depression.

There were several other uses of tobacco in treating some health problems. To treat indigestion, aches in the belly, and urinary obstruction, decanted liquor of boiled tobacco was used. Ashes of burned tobacco were mixed with grease and applied as an ointment to ulcerated skin, warts, and dermal cancer.

Smoke blown into the ear can cure earaches. When applied to the anus, tobacco can relieve constipation and blood discharge. To improve deafness, people in the past dropped tobacco juice into their ears. To treat asthma, chest diseases, and cough, tobacco was made into a syrup with honey and taken orally.

For decades, the link between tobacco and pain – the discomfort caused by illness or injury – has been known. Unfortunately, the potential of using tobacco to treat pain is hindered by “the harmful and highly addictive properties associated with tobacco use.”

Modern medicine

Because of the original uses of tobacco, modern medicine has turned to tobacco as a possible ally against some diseases. Most of these medical scientists are interested in nicotine, a stimulant chemical that speeds up the messages traveling between the brain and body. It was named after Jean Nicot, the French diplomat and importer who introduced tobacco in France and Portugal.

“Nicotine has long been a useful tool for researchers interested in probing the nervous system. Although the health risks associated with its intake via tobacco products has tended to tarnish society’s view of nicotine, it is important to recognize that nicotine may have therapeutic potential with a number of disease states,” pointed out Dr. Ovid Pomerlau, director of the Behavioral Medicine Program at the University of Michigan.

There are studies, mostly conducted in the United States, which showed that nicotine can 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 schizophrenics, both male and female, are heavy smokers than in the general population, and they smoke the higher tar brands.”

Parkinson’s disease

Parkinson’s disease, one of the most prevalent neurodegenerative diseases around the world, is named after Dr. James Parkison who described it in 1817. Among the famous victims of this disease are George H.W. Bush, Neil Diamond, Michael J. Fox, Alan Alda, and Muhammad Ali.

Epidemiological studies consistently show that the use of tobacco reduces the risk of the said disease. A meta-analysis of observational studies reported that current smoking was associated with a 60% lower risk of Parkinson’s disease.

“Smoking causes a reduction in activity of monoamine oxidase A and B, which might protect against neuronal damage by inhibiting the enzymatic oxidation of dopamine. One unachieved goal in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease is preventing it getting worse,” said the US National Institutes of Health.


An estimated 7.3 million Filipinos have diabetes, with 3.5 million of them diagnosed and the remaining ones undiagnosed. It is no wonder why the Philippines is now touted as a “diabetes hotspot.”

Now, the good news. Scientists in Italy have succeeded in using genetically modified tobacco plants to produce medicines for several autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, including diabetes.

“Transgenic plants are attractive systems for the production of therapeutic proteins because they offer the possibility of large scale production at low cost, and they have low maintenance requirements,” said study leader Professor Mario Pezzotti at the University of Verona.

Research on the use of tobacco in medicine, however, is not only confined to industrialized countries. The Philippines has also recognized the medical properties of tobacco.

“Tobacco has always been considered a medicinal plant,” said the National Tobacco Authority (NTA) on its website. “Before its use as a smoking material, it has been used as a traditional medicine for common illnesses.”

The NTA reported that its current efforts involve studies on the phytochemistry, antimicrobial activity and pharmacological properties of tobacco. Tobacco-based ointments and liniments are also being evaluated.

Natural organic pesticide

One of the biggest problems of farmers in crop production are the pests and diseases that attack crops at the different stages of their growth. This is the reason why farmers employ several methods to obliterate them. One of these methods is the use of pesticides.

Aside from being expensive, these inorganic chemicals don’t only kill pests and diseases but also people working in the fields. Of the estimated 860 million agricultural workers worldwide, 44% are affected by pesticide poisoning annually, according to a 2020 study. “This is due to a lack of protective equipment or defective equipment, which increases exposure through skin absorption, inhalation or ingestion,” the study said.

For centuries, gardeners have used home-made mixtures of tobacco and water as a natural pesticide to kill insect pests. This allowed Cedric Briens and his colleagues to use it as an alternative to conventional commercial pesticides. The reason for coming up with such an idea was because of the low demand of tobacco which hurt farmers who plant the crop.

Since tobacco contains nicotine, they could use it as the main ingredient for an eco-friendly natural pesticide. They believe it could provide additional income for tobacco farmers and help the environment as well, according to Industrial and Engineering Chemistry Research journal.

To convert tobacco to pesticide, the leaves are exposed to heat (900 degrees Fahrenheit) in a vacuum. Doing so would produce an unrefined substance called bio-oil. The product has been tested against a wide range of insect pests, including 11 different fungi, four bacteria, and a potato weevil.

“The bio-oil killed all of the beetles and blocked the growth of two types of bacteria and one fungus,” the journal reported. “Even after the removal of the nicotine, the oil remained a very effective pesticide. Its ability to block some but not all of the microorganisms suggests that tobacco bio-oil may have additional value as a more selective pesticide than those currently in use.”

By-products and wastes

In the Philippines, the NTA is experimenting with possible uses of by-products and wastes from tobacco after being processed. Being biodegradable, stalks, top leaves, stems, scraps, and dusts of tobacco “are particularly appealing alternatives to synthetic pesticides and fertilizers especially during these times of high level consciousness for ‘environment-friendly’ technologies, and the fact that synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are very expensive.”

Studies conducted by NTA’s crop protection group found that tobacco scraps and waste products applied at 200 kilograms per hectare can effectively control golden kuhol, the pests that attack rice fields. This practice also increased the yield, NTA said.

The NTA is also promoting tobacco aqueous spray and tobacco dust as alternative pesticides. Tobacco spray applied at 10-days intervals can reduce the population of beanfly and bean aphids by 89% and 97%, respectively. Tobacco dust, on the other hand, can effectively kill 80 to 90% of tomato cutworm and beanfly, respectively.

Leafhoppers, thrips, and corn earthworm can also be controlled using either tobacco spray or dust. The stalks and midribs of tobacco were already proven to be excellent media for mushroom culture. In fact, this technology is already commercialized.

In 2012, NTA launched a product called Tobacco Dust Plus (TDP), an excellent organic and degradable pesticide and fertilizer for grow-out ponds. Some experts believe TDP “has the potential to craft sustainable fisheries and improve the economic situation for fish and tobacco farmers around the world.”

To rid ponds of pesky snails, fishers use chemical pesticides but these can taint farmed fish, particularly bangus and tilapia. TDP, as a molluscicide, acts swiftly to protect fishes and their eggs from predatory snails and other creatures that exist in ponds.

TDP also acts as natural fertilizer as it facilitates the growth of lablab, an algae that grows naturally on the bottom of shallow ponds that fish love to eat. As fish get access to plenty of their favorite natural food, fishers lessen their expenses from buying commercial feeds.

Food notes

Believe it or not, some parts of tobacco can be used as an ingredient for food. This must be the reason why the NTA is conducting some research on the use of tobacco as a source of food and feed. It found that a very high quality protein (called fraction-1 protein) can be extracted from its leaves for human consumption. The seeds are free from nicotine and are rich in protein (25%) and oil (35%). With this finding, NTA said, “they are good sources of edible and industrial-type oils.”

Sometime in the early 1990s, NTA was able to make pastry products like polvoron, pastillas, cookies, doughnuts and pancakes with ground tobacco seeds substituting for up to 30% of the flour requirements.

In its study, NTA found that tobacco seeds can also substitute for sesame seeds or peanuts in brittle candies. Taste tests conducted on elementary pupils, high school students, college students, and professionals showed the high acceptability of these products with ratings of “liked” to “liked a lot” using the Smiley Test.

“Our future activities include the extraction, purification, and conversion of the tobacco leaf protein (fraction1-protein) into familiar food items such as cheese, gelatin, nutri-crunch (kropeck) and as a major component of beverages,” the NTA said.

As feed, tobacco seeds can substitute for 25% of the commercial feed ingredients for broilers. A study conducted on tilapia showed that up to 70% of their feeds could be substituted with tobacco seeds. As for the seed cake obtained after the extraction of the oil, it can be used as protein-rich feed for cattle and horses.

“The potential of tobacco as a source of food and feed are very promising,” the NTA said. “If fully tapped, it will not extend the usefulness of tobacco but more importantly, will be a positive factor in easing the increasing demand for food.”


“Tobacco has been cultivated mainly for its leaves,” the NTA said. “The very high economic returns from the leaves favored this practice, hence, neglecting the potentials of the other parts of the plant. However, with the current emphasis on the development of other products from tobacco and with the very encouraging results that we are getting, the NTA is confident of doing its share in promoting the industrialization of the countryside.”

As Joaquin T. Ortega, former NTA administrator, puts it: “The tobacco industry is beset with problems now, but with the development of other tobacco products, tobacco may still prove to be the crop of the future.” – ###

Bringing tobacco
Transporting tobacco

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