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Tobacco smoking dates to the pre-Columbian era in the Americas. However, as its popularity increased, its legal status has varied greatly, not just in the US, but all over the world. In the United States, until about the 1990s, tobacco was effectively unregulated.

One of the reasons cigarette smoking became more popular was that it was seen as a glamorous habit. Tobacco companies paid for product placement in television shows, movies, and advertisements, which helped to promote the image of their product as glamorous or manly to a wider audience. In some cases, tobacco companies even paid actors to smoke their brands on screen.

It may seems ridiculous today, but in the mid-1900s, tobacco companies also ran ad campaigns to tout the healthful benefits of smoking. Some of these ads even included images of doctors smoking! One memorable slogan claimed that "[m]ore doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette."

Tobacco companies denied or downplayed the negative health effects of smoking, despite the fact that there was a growing body of scientific evidence linking smoking to a range of serious health problems, including lung cancer and death. In some cases, tobacco companies even funded research that intended to find no connection between smoking and disease. These companies also hid research that showed that smoking was harmful.

In the 1990s, the evidence that smoking was harmful continue to increase. Groups that advocated for the regulation of tobacco brought lawsuits against big tobacco companies which proved that the companies had deliberately withheld research that showed that tobacco was dangerous to a person's health. Over the course of a few years, more states passed laws restricting the sales of cigarettes to adults over the age of 18 and greatly increased taxes; for example, the average cost of a pack of cigarettes rose from less than $1 in 1980 to more than $7 in 2015.

In 2009, the US passed the Tobacco Control Act, which gives the Food and Drug Administration control over how tobacco is manufactured, marketed, and sold. For example, advertising that might appeal to children (such as using cartoon characters) is banned, and cigarette labels must devote more than 50% of their space to warning labels.

As a result of this increased regulation and public awareness, the percentage of smokers in the US has decreased from 45% in 1954 (meaning almost half of adults smoked in 1954!) to about 13% in 2020. Rates of lung cancer deaths have also decreased dramatically, from a peak around 1990 of about 91 deaths per 100,000 people to about 50 in 2015.

To make up for lost sales, tobacco companies have turned to markets outside the US to sell tobacco. For example, China is seen as a possible target for increased growth. And other "nicotine-delivery devices," such as electronic cigarettes, have gained in popularity, as well. For example, the vaping market exploded in 2010-2020, which in fact is already experiencing federal regulation in much the same way that tobacco has.

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