The Many Different Uses for Tobacco (Besides Smoking)
By Jonathan Detore
We cigar lovers smoke for very simple reasons: Cigars are delicious, they help us relax, and they can be used as social catalysts, much like beer at your local bar. There’s hardly anything we’d choose over a cigar to help unwind after a long day in the office or after finishing up that “honey do” list on the weekends. Unfortunately this hobby attracts a lot of dissent from non-smokers for a variety of reasons, but in the end the argument is always the same; they don’t like cigars, so we shouldn’t be allowed to smoke them. I believe it was fellow Cigar Advisor and philosopher Tommy “Zman” Zarzecki who once said “Screw all those smoke Nazis!” Eloquent as always, but I can’t say Tommy is wrong. A ban on all tobacco products is certainly not the answer.
Most of those who want such a ban think of all tobacco products as part of the big tobacco conglomerates who pour billions of dollars into the federal government every year. And while large cigarette corporations exercise these practices, there are many industries including the cigar industry that aren’t part of this pay-to-play club. But that doesn’t remove the fact that the anti-tobacco sentiment sweeping the nation has led to decreased tobacco production in the U.S., spreading this once-iconic cash crop’s supply thin across multiple industries. In fact, since the 1980s there has been a decline in tobacco farms across the United States, dropping from 180,000 total farms to just 10,000 in 2012. In a relatively similar amount of time, tobacco production shrank in the U.S. from 900,000 tonnes to 360,000 tonnes annually.
So in order to do my part in saving the humble tobacco plant, and the many industries it benefits, I’m going to lay out just three relatively unknown uses for tobacco that can benefit all of us, whether you smoke or not. You’re going to be shocked at how useful this plant actually is.
Air travel will always be a booming business with an ever shrinking world. But rising gas prices and increased carbon in the atmosphere, giving rise to larger carbon taxes, have been padding the cost of boarding passes. My recent excursion to San Francisco set me back around $600, which is apparently on the cheap side of the spectrum, down from ticket prices of $800 or more when gas was at an all-time high. Now scientists and farmers across the nation are coming together to develop new breeds of tobacco that can be harvested and turned into a cheap, clean-burning biofuel which promises to make tobacco a cash crop once again.
Since 2009 a U.S. biofuel company called Tyton BioEnergy Systems has teamed up with agronomists from Virginia Tech and North California State University to help research and develop viable biofuels for the future, while hoping to increase tobacco production across the nation. The process includes working with strains of tobacco left unused by growers, due to their poor taste and zero nicotine content, while using selective breeding to increase the oil and sugar content in the plant. The result of these extremely inexpensive crops is a low cost alternative energy source that can be processed for multiple uses including air travel and commuter car purposes to help save you money at the pump while also decreasing our carbon footprint.
We’ve all seen in recent years the decline of the humble honeybee and bumblebee, which is actually pretty scary considering they pollinate an estimated 1/3 of all crops on earth. The cause is directly related to new high strength pesticides being used to grow the crops that we eat, eliminating pesky bugs by killing them by the million every year. In fact, in some parts of China some bee colonies have been completely wiped out, forcing laborers to manually pollinate their crops with paint brushes in order to make a living. The cost of hiring these much needed laborers has greatly decreased the wealth of farmers to the point of near poverty. And while I realize this sounds like a bunch of hippie hoo-ha, the United States is on the verge of this tragic trend. I don’t know about you, but I can’t see anyone I know out in a field pollinating crops for hours on end for minimum wage.
Luckily our good friend tobacco can be used to help save the day. Using the lush ligero we know and love in a variety of premium hand rolled cigars, strong tobacco can be boiled or steeped into a nicotine-rich tea, or burned at over 900 degrees to produce a concentrated oil, which can then be applied to crops as an all-natural pesticide. Initial studies have found this application to be very effective, yet more research needs to be done in order to refine its effectiveness for more widespread use. The idea is to create a pesticide that kills fungi and bacteria, while also utilizing high levels of nicotine to detract insects from eating crops rather than killing them. As of now, this method is used in small gardens and some smaller farms, and is a few years away from being applied to large farms for commercial use. Using this tobacco-based pesticide should help rebound the declining bee populations and help keep agricultural production stable.
Even I was surprised when I learned tobacco can be used to create sweet and savory dishes at home or at any number of high-end restaurants, but even here at our own Leaf Cigar Bar & Restaurant the head chef created a tobacco infused ice cream that was out of this world delicious. Most dishes containing tobacco are not seen in the U.S. due to the stigma surrounding the crop, but it is starting to gain popularity by elite chefs everywhere to help give certain dishes a little more flavor and pizzazz. Seeing as tobacco can be easily purchased online at a variety of wholesalers and retailers, you can get a few leaves of your own and try it out with your next meal.
While many dishes call for tobacco to be eaten as a spice or cooked into the meal, ingesting too much can leave you with a nasty stomach ache and feeling woozy. Instead, there are other ways to get an insanely delicious tobacco flavor without directly eating the leaf. The first method is similar to making homemade vanilla where you place the leaves in alcohol for an extended period of time so the flavors can be drawn out and used in any dish you feel needs an extra kick. You can also infuse maple syrup or cream by heating either in a sauce pan on low heat to make your own tobacco maple syrup or tobacco ice cream. But for those of you who want something simple and easy, simply add a bundle of dried tobacco leaves in your smoker for the last few minutes to get a kick of tobacco goodness married into your next rack of ribs.
Though I’ve only listed three examples, there are still a great many more uses for tobacco that fall out of the traditional realm of smokable and smokeless tobacco. Tobacco flowers have gained notoriety as of late for their sweet aroma in candles and for their supposed health benefits in fighting cancer. The possibilities seem endless when it comes to utilizing tobacco, making it one of the most crucial crops we can grow in the United States. Let me know what your favorite use for tobacco is in the comments, and as always, stay smoky.