The herb lobelia was originally used by Native Americans in the New England region. It was subsequently popularized by Samuel Thomson, the founder of an ideosyncratic form of medicine called Thomsonianism. The enduring popularity of lobelia is one of the legacies of this nineteenth century enthusiasm. ( Goldenseal is another herb popularized by Thomson.) The traditional names of the herb capture its traditional uses: wild tobacco, asthma weed, gagroot, and pukeweed. Dried lobelia tastes and smells somewhat like tobacco, and for this reason it was sold as a tobacco substitute. Lobelia was also used to treat asthma and stimulate vomiting.

The Thomsonians additionally claimed that lobelia could relax muscles and nerves. On this basis, they used it for anxiety, epilepsy, kidney stones, insomnia, menstrual cramps, muscle spasms, spastic colon, and tetanus.

The major active ingredient of lobelia is a substance called lobeline. It is widely stated that lobeline is chemically similar to nicotine, and on this basis it has been marketed as a stop-smoking treatment. However, this belief appears to be a type of urban legend; lobeline is not in fact chemically similar to nicotine.1

Interestingly, chemists investigating the lobeline–nicotine myth found that lobeline may diminish certain effects of nicotine in the body, specifically nicotine-induced release of the substance dopamine. Since dopamine is believed to play a significant role in drug addiction, these findings can be taken as hinting that lobeline might be useful for treating drug addiction. Potential benefits have been found for addiction to amphetamines.1,2,3

Dopamine also plays a role in cigarette addiction. For this reason, despite lobeline’s lack of similarity to nicotine, it is at least possible that lobelia could be helpful for people who wish to stop smokeing. Unfortunately, despite its widespread marketing for this purpose, there has never been any meaningful evidence that it works.4

Other proposed uses of lobelia also lack supporting evidence. For example, while studies in horses have found that injected lobeline causes the animals to breath more deeply,5 it is a long way from a finding like this to the widespread claims that lobelia is helpful for asthma. Similarly,animal studies hint that lobeline might enhance memory6and reduce pain,7and, in addition, that beta-amyrin palmitate, another constituent of lobelia, might have antidepressant and sedative properties.8-10

However, there have not yet been any human studies on these potential benefits of the herb.