Smoking is the most common method of consuming tobacco, and tobacco is the most common substance smoked. The agricultural product is often mixed with additives and then combusted. The resulting smoke is then inhaled and the active substances absorbed through the alveoli in the lungs. Combustion was traditionally enhanced by addition of potassium or other nitrates. Elimination of these would result in a fire safe cigarette, this subject has never been addressed by the cigarette manufacturers. Substances trigger chemical reactions in nerve endings, which heighten heart rate, alertness, and reaction time. Dopamine and endorphins are released, which are often associated with pleasure. As of 2008 to 2010, tobacco is used by about 3 billion people (about 49% of men and 11% of women) with about 80% of this usage in the form of smoking. The gender gap tends to be less pronounced in lower age groups.
Smoking's history dates back to as early as 5000–3000 BC when the agricultural product began to be cultivated in South America; consumption later evolved into burning the plant substance either by accident or with intent of exploring other means of consumption. The practice worked its way into shamanistic rituals. Many ancient civilisations — such as the Babylonians, the Indians, and the Chinese — burnt incense during religious rituals. The practice was later adopted by Christians. Smoking in the Americas probably had its origins in the incense-burning ceremonies of shamans but was later adopted for pleasure or as a social tool. The smoking of tobacco and various hallucinogenic drugs was used to achieve trances and to come into contact with the spirit world.
Eastern North American tribes would carry large amounts of tobacco in pouches as a readily accepted trade item and would often smoke it in pipes, either in sacred ceremonies or to seal bargains. Adults as well as children enjoyed the practice. It was believed that tobacco was a gift from the Creator and that the exhaled tobacco smoke was capable of carrying one's thoughts and prayers to heaven.
Apart from smoking, tobacco had a number of uses as medicine. As a pain killer it was used for earache and toothache and occasionally as a poultice. Smoking was said by the desert Indians to be a cure for colds, especially if the tobacco was mixed with the leaves of the small Desert Sage, Salvia Dorrii, or the root of Indian Balsam or Cough Root, Leptotaenia multifida, the addition of which was thought to be particularly good for asthma and tuberculosis.
In 1612, six years after the settlement of Jamestown, John Rolfe was credited as the first settler to successfully raise tobacco as a cash crop. The demand quickly grew as tobacco, referred to as "brown gold", reviving the Virginia joint stock company from its failed gold expeditions. In order to meet demands from the Old World, tobacco was grown in succession, quickly depleting the soil. This became a motivator to settle west into the unknown continent, and likewise an expansion of tobacco production. Indentured servitude became the primary labor force up until Bacon's Rebellion, from which the focus turned to slavery. This trend abated following the American revolution as slavery became regarded as unprofitable. However, the practice was revived in 1794 with the invention of the cotton gin.
Frenchman Jean Nicot (from whose name the word nicotine is derived) introduced tobacco to France in 1560, and tobacco then spread to England. The first report of a smoking Englishman is of a sailor in Bristol in 1556, seen "emitting smoke from his nostrils". Like tea, coffee and opium, tobacco was just one of many intoxicants that was originally used as a form of medicine. Tobacco was introduced around 1600 by French merchants in what today is modern-day Gambia and Senegal. At the same time caravans from Morocco brought tobacco to the areas around Timbuktu and the Portuguese brought the commodity (and the plant) to southern Africa, establishing the popularity of tobacco throughout all of Africa by the 1650s.
Soon after its introduction to the Old World, tobacco came under frequent criticism from state and religious leaders. James VI and I, King of Scotland and England, produced the treatise A Counterblaste to Tobacco in 1604, and also introduced excise duty on the product. Murad IV, sultan of the Ottoman Empire 1623-40 was among the first to attempt a smoking ban by claiming it was a threat to public moral and health. The Chinese emperor Chongzhen issued an edict banning smoking two years before his death and the overthrow of the Ming dynasty. Later, the Manchu of the Qing dynasty, who were originally a tribe of nomadic horse warriors, would proclaim smoking "a more heinous crime than that even of neglecting archery". In Edo period Japan, some of the earliest tobacco plantations were scorned by the shogunate as being a threat to the military economy by letting valuable farmland go to waste for the use of a recreational drug instead of being used to plant food crops.
By the mid-17th century most major civilisations had been introduced to tobacco smoking and in many cases had already assimilated it into the native culture, despite some continued attempts upon the parts of rulers to eliminate the practice with penalties or fines. Tobacco, both product and plant, followed the major trade routes to major ports and markets, and then on into the hinterlands. The English language term smoking appears to have entered currency in the late 18th century, before which less abbreviated descriptions of the practice such as drinking smoke were also in use.
Growth in the US remained stable until the American Civil War in 1860s, when the primary agricultural workforce shifted from slavery to share cropping. This, along with a change in demand, accompanied the industrialisation of cigarette production as craftsman James Bonsack created a machine in 1881 to partially automate their manufacture.