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Any of numerous species of plants in the genus Nicotiana, or the cured leaves of several of the species, used after processing in various ways for smoking, snuffing, chewing, and extracting of nicotine. Native to South America, Mexico, and the West Indies, common tobacco (N. tabacum) grows 4–6 ft (1–2 m) high and bears usually pink flowers and huge leaves, as long as 2–3 ft (0.6–1 m) and about half as wide. When Christopher Columbus reached the Americas, he reported natives using tobacco as it is used today, as well as in religious ceremonies. Believed to have medicinal properties, tobacco was introduced into Europe and the rest of the world, becoming the chief commodity that British colonists exchanged for European manufactured articles. Awareness of the numerous serious health risks posed by tobacco, including various cancers and a range of respiratory diseases, has led to campaigns against its use, but the number of tobacco users worldwide continues to rise. The World Health Organization estimates that smoking now causes three million deaths annually and within two decades will cause more deaths than any single disease.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on tobacco, visit Britannica.com.