Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Tobacco: Pharmacological and Ethnomedicinal Uses

What is Ethnomedicine?
Ethnomedicine refers to the study of traditional medical practice which is concerned with the cultural interpretation of health, diseases and illness and also addresses the health care seeking process and healing practices. (krippner, 2003) .

Today, ethnomedicinal practices and beliefs are part of a total belief system that transcends class, ethnicity and religious belief in such a manner that the term “ folk and traditional” can be used to describe practices that are truly universal. The ethnomedicinal uses of plants is one of the most successful criteria used by the pharmaceutical industries in finding new therapeutic agents for the various fields in bio medicine.(Cox and Balick, 1994). The annual global market for herbal medicine today stands over US $60 billion. (WHO, 2003).

Some outstanding medicinal drugs which have been developed from the ethnomedicinal uses of plants include; vinblastin and vincristin from Catharanthus roseus (the periwinkle) used for treating acute lymphoma , reserpine from Rauwolfia serpentina (indian snake root) used for treating hypertension , aspirin from Salix purpurea (willow) used for treating inflamation and pains and also quinine from Cinchona pubescens (cinchona) used for treating malaria. In Nigeria, tobacco is locally called 'ewe taba', 'otaba' or simply 'taba' among the Yoruba tribe.


Tobacco is a plant which belongs to the family Solanaceae. There are over 70 species of Tobacco, in which 45 are native to the Americas. As early as 2000 years ago, natives of the Americas used tobacco as a medicine, as a hallucinogen in religious ceremonies, and as offerings to the spirits they worshipped. Christopher columbus after journeying to the caribbean observed the Awarak people smoking tobacco which is crew later introduced to spain. Tobacco grows in Tropical and Temperate regions and it requires fertile, well-drained, moist soil and warm temperatures for good quality. Between the two most cultivated species; Nicotiana tabacum and Nicotiana rustica, Nicotiana tabacum is the most commonly grown. Tobacco plant is a robust, annual, little branched herb of up to 2.5m high with large green leaves and long trumpet shaped, white pinkish flowers. All parts are covered with short viscid-glandular hairs which exude a yellow secretion containing NICOTINE. The leaves vary in size, the lower leaves are the largest up to 40cm long, the upper ones are sessile and are small. The flower is terminal, many flowered inflorescence, seeds are numerous, very small, ovoid or kidney shaped and they are brown.

Locally, tobacco serves the following functions:
  • The dried leaves are used as snuffs or are smoked.
  • Wet tobacco leaves are applied externally in the treatment of rheumatic swelling, stings and skin diseases as the active ingredient can be absorbed through the skin. 
  • The leaves are dried and chewed as an intoxicant
  • A drying oil is obtained from the seed of Nicotiana tabacum which can be used as an insecticide
  • The juice of the leaves can be rubbed on the body as an insect repellant.
  • In some countries like Tanzania, Leaves of Nicotiana tabacum are placed in the vagina to stimulate labor.
With respect to pharmacological uses, the most prominent photochemical found in Tobacco is Nicotine. Nicotine in very low doses causes ganglionic stimulation. Nicotine at very low doses, brings about cardiovascular effects which appear to be mediated by the central nervous system either through the activation of chemoreceptor afferent pathways or by direct effects on the brain system. The net result is sympathetic neutral discharge with an increase in blood pressure and heart rate. At higher doses, nicotine may act directly on the peripheral nervous system producing ganglionic stimulation at the release of adrenal catecholamine. At extremely high doses, nicotine produces hypotension and slowing of the heart rate, mediated by either peripheral ganglionic blockage, vagal afferent nerve stimulation or direct depressor effects mediated by action on the brain.

Ethnomedicinally, tobacco leaf can be used as;
  • An antispasmodic which means relaxing of muscle cramps. The leaves of tobacco is a class of plant that are used to reduce muscular tension and allow them to relax. They are generally used in the symptoms including, but not limited to: nervous irritation, hiccups, tics, tremors, hacking, convulsions and muscle cramps.
  • A diuretic: the leaf of tobacco can serve as a diuretic. It provides a means of forced diuresis which elevates the rate of urination. Tobacco increase excretion of water from bodies.
  • An emetic : tobacco leaf serve as herbs that helps the body to remove excess mucous from the lungs.The leaf soothe bronchial spasm and promote the production of a more watery mucous that is easier to cough up. Examples are hyssop, mullein and plantain.
  • A sedative or tranquilizer which is a substance that induces sedation by reducing irritability or excitement. The leaves of tobacco when in powdery form serves as sedatives i.e. to induce sleep and also to relieve anxiety. Also it provides a peaceful and calming effect when used at low doses.
  • An expectorant: expectorant means to expel from the chest. The tobacco leaf can function by signaling the body to increase the amount of hydration of secretions, resulting in more yet clearer secretions and as a by product lubricating the irritated respiratory tract. Sometimes, the term ‘expectorant’ is incorrectly extended to cough medicine, since it is a universal component to it.

As a Plant Biologist I have shown above that Tobacco contains Nicotine, an additive drug which pharmacologically has some health benefits but must quickly point out that Tobacco products include cigarettes, cigars and pipe tobacco, which when smoked produces smoke that contains more than 4000 chemical compounds, including at least 43 cancer-causing compounds. The different forms of tobacco smoked causes lung cancers, emphysema and other respiratory diseases. In addition chewing tobacco and inhaling snuff causes cancer of the mouth, nose and throat and can also lead to nicotine addiction. Please be warned that smokers are liable to die young.

References for further reading
  1. Cox, P.A. and Balick, M. (1994). The ethnobotanical approach to drug discovery. Sci  Am 270: 82-87.
  2. Groark, K. P. ( 2010). The Angel in the Gourd: Ritual, Therapeutic, and Protective Uses of Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) among the Tzeltal and Tzotzil Maya of Chiapas, Mexico. Journal of Ethnobiology 30(1): 5-30
  3. Jack. J.G: (1940).Tobacco : A Study of Its consumption in the United States. p. 107.
  4. Krippner S, Welch P. (1992). Spiritual dimension of healing: From tribal Shamanism to contemporary healthcare. New York, Irvington
  5. Krippner, S. (2003). Models of Ethnomedicinal Healing. Paper presented at the Ethnomedicine Conferences. Munich, Germany
  6. Lowe, H., Payne-Jackson, A., Beckstrom-Sternberg, S.M. and Duke, J.A: (2000). Jamaica’s Ethnomedicine: Its potential in the healthcare system. Canoe press; University of the West Indies, Kingston, Jamaica. 170Pp.
  7. Nan R. and Michael P. Timko: (2001). “AFLP analysis of genetic polymorphism and evolutionary relationships among cultivated and wild Nicotiana species” Genome 44 (4): 559-571.
  8. The History of tobacco (http://academic.udayton.edu/health/syllabi/tobacco/history.htm#newworld
  9. Wenning, Robert: (2009). Back to the roots of modern analytical toxicology. 1 (4): 153-155.
  10. WHO | WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC)     (http://www.who.int/fctc/en/index.html)
  11. World Health Organization. (2003). Traditional Medicine, Fact sheet No 134. 
  12. "Smoking." Microsoft® Encarta® 2009 [DVD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2008.

1 comment:

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