It's a dried leaf you set fire to in order to enjoy. Some even chew it or stuff it up their nose for personal gratification. Nicotiana tabacum, introduced to the West in the 16th century by Sir Walter Raleigh, shouldn't have flown, but it did (and it still does, despite the fact that everyone knows SMOKING KILLS).
Back in the '60s, US comedian Bob Newhart imagined a telephone conversation between the head of the West Indies Company and Raleigh: 'Y'see, Walt... I think you're gonna have rather a tough time selling people on sticking burning leaves in their mouths...' Not so. In the 1950s, 80% of British men smoked - how debonair, how Hollywood, to have a lighted cigarette in hand. Then Dr Richard Doll linked lung cancer to the carcinogens in cigarette tar, and smoking became recognised as a major health hazard.
But the habit is proving hard to kick for Britain's 13.3 million adults (more than half of whom are women) addicted to nicotine. In 2002, 56 billion cigarettes, 3,340 tonnes of hand-rolling and pipe tobacco and 875 million cigars were sold in the UK, though the market for tobacco products is now in decline. Between 1993 and 2002, cigarette sales fell by 38% and pipe tobacco by 64%. Lambert & Butler is our biggest-selling brand, and Marlboro Lights the most popular youth brand. But with 120,000 a year dying from the habit, the Government is keen to stub it out.