From Jamestown to the Marlboro Man: An Economic History of Tobacco

Jun 24, 2004Jun 25, 2004


Dr. Richard Ault
Associate Professor of Economics
Auburn University

From the birth of our nation through modern times, tobacco has played a unique role in the story of the United States.  Early settlers relied on tobacco as a valuable "cash crop" and often used it as a form of currency.  Additionally, many Western physicians initially subscribed to the Native American belief that tobacco could be used as an effective medicine.

Over the course of the 20th century, the negative health effects of tobacco consumption, particularly smoking, became more widely studied and known.  In response to public health advocates and other organized special interests, federal, state, and local governments have implemented various taxes and restrictions on the sale, advertising, and use of tobacco products.  Many of these efforts are designed to curb tobacco consumption or compensate for the costs of tobacco-related health effects.  But are these laws actually accomplishing their stated goals?  Who are the interested parties and how has the regulatory policy in this arena evolved over the past century?

In this two-day course, Dr. Richard Ault will present a historical overview of tobacco policy in the United States, as well as an economic framework with which to assess current regulatory proposals.  Attendees will gain a fuller perspective of the competing interests at hand, and an enhanced appreciation for the complexity of the modern debate.  Some questions to be considered in the course include:

  • Why did tobacco production develop in the United States?  How has it been taxed and regulated historically?
  • How have consumers, producers, policymakers, and lobbyists adapted their behavior in response to changes in tobacco regulation?  How might economics help explain these changes in behavior?
  • How do economists measure the "costs" and "benefits" of tobacco production and consumption?  Is there a need to distinguish between cigarettes, cigars, and smokeless tobacco?
  • In light of recent trends to deter smoking, what might account for the continued existence of price supports for tobacco farmers?  What about the tobacco buyout plans before Congress?