When Christopher Columbus returned to Spain after discovering America in 1492, one of the things he brought back was tobacco.  Five hundred years later, smoking has become a worldwide, and hundreds of millions of people are now using tobacco in various forms.

History records showed that tobacco was introduced in the Philippines in the late 16th century during the era of Spanish colonization when the Augustinians brought cigar tobacco seeds to the colony for cultivation. In 1686, William Dampier visited Mindanao and observed that smoking was already a widespread custom.

These days, tobacco use is likened to “slow-motion suicide,” to quote the words of Dr. Halfdan Mahler, former director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) of the United Nations.  “Smoking is hazardous to your health,” the US Surgeon General said.

Tobacco, known in the science world as Nicotiana tabacum, “has always had negative press,” Danny Ebelhar, an American tobacco farmer from Owensboro, was quoted as saying by Bloomberg News.  “But now, it may come back to be a benefit to mankind.”

There’s more to tobacco than just for smoking.  In fact, Ebelhar grows tobacco for Kentucky BioProcessing Llc. not for making cigarettes but to be used for starch and research other than for pharmaceuticals.

In the Philippines, some farmers are finding tobacco as an ally against pests.  Take the case of 35-year-old Serapion Mariano, who has been growing corn for almost a decade now in his farm lot in Bansalan, Davao del Sur.  Like other crops he used to plant before, corn is susceptible to attacks of insects and diseases.

One of the problems he encountered lately is the common stalk borer.  Corn plants from 2 to 24 inches tall may be attacked.  Damage to corn caused by the pest is characterized by wilting and/or dying of the upper leaves or by ragged irregular holes chewed in the newly unrolled leaves.

The common stalk borer, experts say, is caused by the insect boring into the stalk at the soil level and tunneling upward.  The insect may also climb up the plant and tunnel downward into the whorl, creating the ragged holes. A considerable amount of sawdust-like borer feces can be seen in the whorl or coming out of the borer’s entry hole in the stalk.

In the past, Mariano used chemical pesticides to destroy the insects that attacked his crops.  But after attending two-day training on organic farming at the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC) in Kinuskusan, Bansalan, Davao del Sur, he found out that there’s a better way of getting rid of the insects.

“One of the best ways to eradicate the insects is by using tobacco spray,” Mariano said.  Here’s what he did.  He boiled 250 grams of dried tobacco leaves and stems in four liters of water for 20 minutes.  After that, he allowed the water to cool and then filtered it through layered cotton cloth.  He added four more liters of water to the solution and 50 grams of bar soap.  He then poured the solution into corn funnels to kill stalk borer.

According to MBRLC technicians, the tobacco solution can also be applied as a soil drench around plants to kill cutworms.  It can be used to spray beans to prevent rust disease and also to control aphids, beetles, cabbage worms, caterpillars, grain weevils, leaf miners, mites, stem borers and thrips.

The tobacco solution, MBRLC technicians claimed, is especially effective against biting or sucking insects.  When applied weekly with a brush, it is effective against ticks and fleas in cattle.

The Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO) has developed another kind of tobacco spray.  One kilogram of crushed or bruised tobacco stalks and leaves are soaked in 15 liters of water for 24 hours.  The solution is then filtered; and three to five tablespoon of liquid soap is added.  It is sprayed immediately to plants.

“Use tobacco sprays in the evening to allow them to work in the night,” the Florida-based ECHO reminds.  “And in general, do not spray potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant or any plant in the Solanaceae family in order to prevent the spread of viruses.”

Another warning from ECHO: “Do not let people or animals drink the solution, and when spraying, wear protective clothing – especially a mask, or apply solutions with a watering can only.  Do not eat vegetables within four days of application and wash them carefully when you do.”

“For centuries, gardeners have used home-made mixtures of tobacco and water as a natural pesticide to kill insect pests,” the Science Daily reported.

A “green” pesticide industry based on tobacco could provide income for tobacco farmers, and as well as a new eco-friendly pest-control agent, the scientists say.  They describe a promising way to convert tobacco leaves into pesticides with pyrolysis. That process involves heating tobacco leaves to about 900 degrees Fahrenheit in a vacuum, to produce an unrefined substance called bio-oil.

The scientists tested tobacco bio-oil against a wide variety of insect pests, including 11 different fungi, four bacteria, and the Colorado potato beetle.  The oil killed all of the beetles and blocked the growth of two types of bacteria and one fungus. “Even after removal of the nicotine, the oil remained a very effective pesticide,” the scientists who conducted the study claimed.

In the Philippines, the National Tobacco Administration (NTA) of the Department of Agriculture has found that that tobacco dust can help lessen the population of nuisance snails that inhabit fishponds and fish cages.

The efficacy of tobacco dust has been proven by studies conducted by a team from the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center in Tigbauan, Iloilo. Field testing in fishponds in Bulacan, Pampanga, Bataan, Pangasinan and Ilocos Sur confirmed the validity of the scientific studies.

“Tobacco dust is organic, readily degradable, and environment-friendly,” the NTA said in a press statement. “The absence of pesticide residues contributes to the marketability and exportability of local fish and ensures consumer safety, aside from being free from chemical residues.”

To some, tobacco may be a killer but to others, it can save lives. “Tobacco, divine, rare super excellent tobacco, which goes far beyond all panaceas, potable gold and philosopher’s stones, a sovereign remedy to all diseases,” Robert Burton once said.

World explorer Christopher Columbus noted that dried leaves were carried by a man in a canoe near the island of Ferdinandina because they were esteemed for their healthfulness.  Two members of his crew also observed people in what is now Cuba carrying a burning torch that contained tobacco, the purpose of which (it was later known) was to disinfect and help ward off disease and fatigue.

Filipinos have been using tobacco, too, as a medicinal plant.  The website of the Healing Wonders of Philippine Medicinal Plants gives brief information: “The (tobacco) leaves are antispasmodic, discutient, diuretic, emetic, expectorant, irritant, narcotic, sedative and sialagogue.  They are used externally in the treatment of rheumatic swelling, skin diseases and scorpion stings.

“Wet tobacco leaves can be applied to stings in order to relieve the pain,” the website said.  “They are also a certain cure for painful piles.  A homeopathic remedy is made from the dried leaves.  It is used in the treatment of nausea and travel sickness.”

Here’s a word of warning: “The plant should be used with great caution, when taken internally as it is an addictive narcotic.  The active ingredients can also be absorbed through the skin.”

Tobacco leaves and the smoke generated when they are burned contain over four thousand chemicals.  According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, people who suffer from mental disorders such attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia and the like may experience positive effects from smoking.  Apparently, doses of nicotine have a short-term normalization effect on the EEG (electrical activity in the brain).

“Nicotine has long been a useful tool for researchers interested in probing the nervous system,” said Dr. Ovid Pomerleau, director of the Behavioral Medicine Program of the University of Michigan.

Nicotine is one of the most studied of all drugs. At the beginning of the century, the earliest research into neurotransmitters involved the effects of nicotine.  The first neurotransmitter receptor identified was the nicotine receptor. Nicotine mimics the actions of acetylcholine and has been shown to modulate many neurotransmitters.

Some considerable researches have been made as to the role of nicotine receptors in the central nervous system in human cognitive functioning. Initial investigations of the effect of nicotinic agents in both normal and diseased individuals have confirmed the importance of the integrity of these systems for normal cognitive functioning, Dr. Pomerleau said.

There is now some intriguing new data suggesting that very low doses of nicotine can have dramatic effects in controlling the symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome, a rare neurologic disorder characterized by physical tics and uncontrollable vocalizations which are often filled with obscenities.

“Most patients with Tourette’s syndrome are treated with a neuroleptic (anti-seizure) agent of some sort, and generally respond well to this approach. But there are a certain number of patients that are not as responsive to neuroleptics and need some further help. Our studies suggest that these patients may be helped by nicotine therapy,” said Dr. Paul Sanberg of the University of South Florida.

“Good food, good sex, good digestion, and good sleep:  To these basic animal pleasures, man has added nothing but the good cigarette,” Mignon McLaughlin once said.