While it is undeniable that tobacco would have eventually made its way into the homes and lives of Europeans, it wasn't a crop that existed at all until introduced from the untapped land that we now know as the Americas - where tobacco use was commonplace for an estimated several thousand years.
It all had to begin somewhere though, and as soon as it was introduced to Europe its use spread like wildfire for medicinal and social reasons. The product was so popular that governments scrambled to tax it and today it may very likely be the most highly-taxed product in the world.
The Year was 1492
The journal of Christopher Columbus describes a particular crop that he (and the rest of Europe) was unfamiliar with, and it was tobacco. Since the plant didn't prove useful for eating and had a rather foul smell to it, they waited until the native inhabitants who gave it to them were out of sight and immediately threw it overboard (could have at least re-gifted it.) It wasn't until a second journey where they encountered modern-day Cuba, that he and the crew witnessed people smoking the plant.
Please note: There is some argument out there as to whether the crew and Columbus himself witnessed people smoking the plant on the 1st or 2nd journey as it was not properly recorded. I suppose in the end it doesn't really matter because that is not the point. The point is this: On this day in 1492 the first ever written reference to tobacco (in Europe) was in Columbus' journal.
The first person on record to introduce the smoking of tobacco to Europe was a member of Columbus' crew named Rodrigo de Jerez, who shared his newly found habit with his friends in Ayamonte, Spain. He was promptly arrested by the Spanish Inquisition because "only the devil could give man the power to exhale smoke from his mouth."
By the time he was released 7 years later, smoking was already immensely popular all over Europe. One would think that once the smoking practice had become socially acceptable that this man would have been immediately released and given at least a "Sorry, our bad!" but nah. In 500 years our judicial system remains relatively unchanged as a lot of people are still languishing away in prison for non-violent marijuana violations.
By the mid 16th century, tobacco farming and exporting to Europe was a massive operation and was deemed one of the most profitable crops that one could grow. The Portuguese established massive plantations in Brazil and this trend would eventually become one of the largest crops cultivated by the United States - some would argue it was so profitable that it gave the colonies the financial power to ever consider breaking away from England.
The plant could also be chewed to relieve toothaches and it was effective in the temporary relief of a lot of ailments and at times was touted as a cure. However, we now understand that this is just temporary narcotic pain-relief and the reason why it appeared to "cure" a particular ailment was just the naturally-occurring healing in the body. But just like the old saying goes "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story."
Throughout history there have been many bans on tobacco but the sheer profits available on the crop resulted in any government deciding instead of banning it, they could make huge profits by taxing it. This system of course still exists to this day where the cost of producing a packet of cigarettes is less than 30 US cents, yet purchasing this pack of cigarettes costs $5 to $30 and nearly all of this goes to taxes.
On a personal note I wish that I have never been peer-pressured into starting smoking. I remember the first couple of Marlboro that I had in the parking lot at school and how awful it made me feel. It is truly amazing that I ever had a second one given the almost violent reaction I had to the first. We all do dumb things and it is only recently, around 20 years later that I finally gave the habit up after realizing it was taking a massive toll on my ability to do physical activity.
However, I also don't think it should be banned. I think most sensible people will eventually realize that this habit is incredibly dangerous and will give it up on their own at some point. When I was in high school and college, virtually everyone I knew was a smoker - Now almost none of those same people still do so.
If it hadn't been Columbus it would have been someone else. However, he is the first person from Europe to ever record the "discovery" of the plant. Unlike the "discovery" of modern-day USA, this is something that is correctly attributed to him.