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What everyone gets wrong about the history of cigarettes

A cigarette factory in Cuba.
A cigarette factory in Cuba.
STR/Getty Images
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

It's natural to think that cigarettes became enormously popular worldwide because they're so addictive — or because tobacco companies were so good at marketing and advertising.

Those things no doubt played a role. But there's another, often-forgotten factor that helped cigarettes conquer the world: technology.

The introduction of cigarette-rolling machines in the 19th century was a truly world-changing invention that had an enormous impact on public health, as Gary Cross and Robert Proctor explain in their book Packaged PleasuresBefore 1880, companies could only roll four to five cigarettes per minute. That just wasn't quick enough for cigarettes to become a dominant mass-market item.

The introduction of the rolling machine in 1880 changed everything. Companies got faster and faster at rolling cigarettes. By 2006, they could roll a staggering 20,000 per minute:

Cigarette rolling speeds.

Cigarette-rolling machine speeds, 1800 to present.

Cigarette machines revolutionized the industry

Prior to 1880, cigarettes were rolled by hand, which meant a rate of only a few cigarettes per minute. One of the first cigarette-rolling machines, the Susini, appeared in 1867, but was finicky and wasn't widely adopted.

Things changed significantly in 1880, when James Bonsack invented a machine that could roll 210 cigarettes a minute, or 20,000 cigarettes in 10 hours. (He was spurred on by an industry prize that promised $75,000 to anyone who could build a reliable rolling device.)

The Bonsack machine worked by creating a single long cigarette that could be cut into appropriate portions. It found rapid adoption by James Buchanan Duke's American Tobacco Company, which eventually split into R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard, Liggett & Myers, and American Tobacco Company.

The original patent drawing for the Bonsack machine.

The original patent drawing for the Bonsack machine. (Wikimedia Commons)

Innovations like the Bonsack machine were followed by American and international inventions that further increased cigarette production and packaging. In the modern era, cigarette-producing machines are so sophisticated that Japan Tobacco, a Japanese manufacturer, also makes a machine that applies semiconductors to circuit boards.

The rise of cigarettes wasn't inevitable. Technology was key.

It was never a foregone conclusion that the cigarette would become the dominant way to consume tobacco. In 1890, cigarettes were an insignificant portion of the American tobacco market, especially compared with cigars, chew, and pipes.

Cigarettes only went from niche product to mass-market success after the rolling machine improved dramatically:

Forms of tobacco consumption

Forms of tobacco consumption (Burns et al., via US Department of Agriculture)

Of course, it's hard to prove that technology was the only factor here. But there is some suggestive evidence. Notably, the shortening of cigarette-manufacturing times correlates well with the rise in smoking rates worldwide.

Even though cigarette-smoking rates have declined in the United States since the 1960s, thanks to aggressive public-health campaigns, global smoking rates have continued to increase in tandem with the major strides in rolling technology. The best place to see that is in China: In 1911, the Chinese smoked 7.5 billion cigarettes. By 2012, that figure had risen to 2.4 trillion.

Granted, this is partly a chicken-and-egg question. If customers didn't want cigarettes in the first place, it wouldn't matter how fast rolling machines could work. On the other hand, massive improvements in cigarette production enabled lower prices that probably spurred demand. Fast cigarette machines allow a labor force of around 10,000 Americans to make 400 billion cigarettes a year.

Other factors like mass marketing and mass distribution no doubt played a part in cigarettes' rise. But the cigarette has proven to be a uniquely appealing — and addictive — form of tobacco delivery. Technological advances certainly deserve some of the credit (or blame).

Further reading

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