Tobacco: Smoke that provides "energy"
The spread of tobacco throughout the world is a result of colonialism. From a religious usage among native Americans, tobacco has become a global habit of enormous dimensions.
Tobacco was brought to Southeast Asia from the Americas by the Spanish, Dutch and English as they colonised the region. The habit of smoking spread extremely rapidly to all cultures by the 19th century.
Tobacco is relatively easy to grow and requires few inputs. Among the hills of the Golden Triangle, tobacco is grown together with other crops and is consumed locally. Farmers sun-dry the leaves and shred them manually. Small amounts are sold in local markets, providing cash for farmers to buy necessities.
Among the rural population most smoke home-grown tobacco either rolled in maize leaves or in pipes. Decorated silver pipes are status objects of considerable worth and artistic value, and they can be inherited or exchanged for cash in times of need. Wooden pipes are sometimes buried with the deceased since it is envisaged that souls will smoke in their next existence.
Among many ethnic groups, tobacco smoke is believed to have special curative properties. Similar to betel, it can transfer magical powers and restore the proper balance in the body. Many people claim that smoking "gives them energy". In addition, tobacco is now given as offerings to ancestral spirits.
Smoking first became popular among the upper classes that imitated European men. It was considered an exclusive male activity and women were not allowed access to foreign ways. Even today few lowland women smoke in public but smoking is a common pastime for hill-tribe women. Young women are challenging convention and smoking is one way of rebelling against traditional gender roles.
Nicotine is the addictive element in tobacco and tobacco smoke. It is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream and the brain upon inhaling or more slowly if chewed or sniffed. Nicotine in small doses is a mild stimulant but in large doses is poisonous, even deadly.
In the last thirty years cigarette smoking has become more and more popular, replacing home-grown tobacco. Multinational companies have set up subsidiaries and marketed their products under local brand names. Aggressive advertising campaigns aim to increase the number of smokers in developing countries where laws are absent, enforcement is weak and the population ignorant of the health risks.
Despite the health problems caused by smoking, it is a legalised intoxicant in all countries. Moreover, smoking facilitates social interaction and is economically important. Tobacco provides income for farmers, businesses and government in the form of taxes. Smoking tobacco is presently on the rise in the Golden Triangle.