The term cigarette, as commonly used, refers to a tobacco cigarette but can apply to similar devices containing other herbs, such as cloves or cannabis. A cigarette is distinguished from a cigar by its smaller size, use of processed leaf, and paper wrapping, which is normally white, though other colors are occasionally available. Cigars are typically composed entirely of whole-leaf tobacco.

Rates of cigarette smoking vary widely, and have changed considerably over the course of history since cigarettes were first widely used in the mid-20th century. While rates of smoking have over time leveled off or declined in the developed world, they continue to rise in developing nations. The South and Central American cigarette used various plant wrappers; when it was brought back to Spain, maize wrappers were introduced, and by the 17th century, fine paper. The resulting product was called papelate and is documented in Goya's paintings La Cometa, La Merienda en el Manzanares, and El juego de la pelota a pala (18th century). By 1830, the cigarette had crossed into France, where it received the name cigarette; and in 1845, the French state tobacco monopoly began manufacturing them. Production jumped markedly when a cigarette-making machine was developed in the 1880s by James Albert Bonsack that vastly increased the productivity of cigarette companies, who went from making approximately 40,000 hand-rolled cigarettes daily to around 4 million. In the English-speaking world, the use of tobacco in cigarette form became increasingly popular during and after the Crimean War, when British soldiers began emulating their Ottoman Turkish comrades and Russian enemies, who had begun rolling and smoking tobacco in strips of old newspaper for lack of proper cigar-rolling leaf.

15] This was helped by the development of tobaccos that are suitable for cigarette use, and by the development of the Egyptian cigarette export industry. The paper for holding the tobacco blend may vary in porosity to allow ventilation of the burning ember or contain materials that control the burning rate of the cigarette and stability of the produced ash. The papers used in tipping the cigarette (forming the mouthpiece) and surrounding the filter stabilize the mouthpiece from saliva and moderate the burning of the cigarette as well as the delivery of smoke with the presence of one or two rows of small laser-drilled air holes.

According to Simon Chapman, a professor of public health at the University of Sydney, the burning agents in cigarette paper are responsible for fires and reducing them would be a simple and effective means of dramatically reducing the ignition propensity of cigarettes. Since the 1980s, prominent cigarette manufacturers such as Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds developed fire-safe cigarettes but did not market them.[citation needed] The burn rate of cigarette paper is regulated through the application of different forms of micro crystalline cellulose to the paper. Cigarette paper has been specially engineered by creating bands of different porosity to create "fire-safe" cigarettes. These cigarettes have a reduced idle burning speed which allows them to self-extinguish. This fire-safe paper is manufactured by mechanically altering the setting of the paper slurry. New York was the first U.S. state to mandate that all cigarettes manufactured or sold within the state comply with a fire safe standard. Canada has passed a similar nation-wide mandate based on the same standard. All U.S. states are gradually passing fire-safe mandates.