Cigarette Smoking: Nicotine Is Not The Only Problem

cigarette smoking

Everyone knows that cigarettes are harmful. Tobacco smoking is one of the largest preventable causes of premature deaths all over the world. According to a 2016 study[1], around 120 million adults in India smoke. It is also revealed that smoking caused around 1 million deaths in the year 2010, which accounts to around 10% of all deaths in India. 

Many are aware cigarettes contain nicotine which is a highly addictive substance. However, most are unaware of the other harmful and potentially lethal chemicals present in cigarettes. Studies have revealed that tobacco contains more than 7000 chemicals, at least 69 out of which are carcinogen in nature, which means these chemicals can cause cancer[2]. Although some of the dangerous chemicals present in cigarettes are added during the manufacturing process, there are certain chemicals which occur naturally in tobacco. In this article, we will be shedding light on the chemicals (other than nicotine) which are present in tobacco and its effect on the overall health.

Tobacco: Chemicals Other Than Nicotine

The chemicals present in cigarettes include a class of carcinogens that are specific to tobacco. They are known as tobacco-specific nitrosamines or TSNAs. The amount of TSNAs varies depending on the way the tobacco is cured. Curing of tobacco is a process involves drying of the tobacco leaves without affecting the colour, smell and texture of tobacco. Some of the chemicals such as ammonia and acetaldehyde are added depending on the manufacturing of cigarettes. Manufacturers also use various synthetic additives to reduce the harshness of the cigarette and enhance the flavor. Addition of ammonia increases the ease with which nicotine is absorbed into the body; thus, rendering the cigarettes more harmful. Sugar is also added to cigarettes for flavor, but it turns carcinogenic when burned[2].

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Benzene, butadiene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, formaldehyde and arsenic are some of the toxic chemicals that are produced when cigarettes are burned. In fact, smokeless tobacco and cigarette fillers also contain these harmful chemicals. Here is the list of the chemicals that may hold responsible for the lethal effects caused by cigarette smoking in addition to nicotine [3].

Some of the harmful chemicals present in cigarette smoke include:

– Benzene, an industrial solvent derived from crude oil.

– Butadiene, a chemical used in rubber manufacturing. 

– Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, are a group of dangerous DNA damaging chemicals. 

– Formaldehyde, used as a preservative in science laboratories, and mortuaries.

– Arsenic, a poison that has multiple industrial purposes

– Acetic acid, a common ingredient in hair dye

– Methane, also known as sewer gas

– Stearic acid, an ingredient of candle wax

– Carbon monoxide, a chemical released from car exhaust fumes 

– Toluene, an industrial solvent

– Cadmium, an ingredient of batteries

Not just cigarette smoke, there are several harmful chemicals present in smokeless tobacco. These include:

– Acetaldehyde

– Arsenic

– Benzo[a]pyrene

– Cadmium

– Crotonaldehyde

– Formaldehyde

– 4-(methylnitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanone (NNK) 

– N-nitrosonornicotine (NNN)

The chemicals present in roll-your-own tobacco and cigarette fillers other than nicotine include:

– Ammonia

– Arsenic

– Cadmium

– 4-(methylnitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanone (NNK) 

– N-nitrosonornicotine (NNN)

How These Chemicals Affect The Overall Health

People who are exposed to these chemicals in tobacco either through inhaling cigarette smoke or in the form of smokeless tobacco are at a higher risk of health concerns. The health complications include cardiovascular diseases and respiratory complications to an increased risk of cancer[3]. Here’s how these toxins affect various parts of the body.

Respiratory toxins: The chemicals in cigarette smoke that act as respiratory toxins include acrolein, acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, and 1,3-butadiene. These toxicants not only harm the respiratory tract or the airways but also impair the lungs. Acrolein damages the cilia (microscopic hair-like structure) present on lungs thereby irritating the airways. It also affects the eyes. Acetaldehyde can lead to cough and burning sensation in the nose, throat, and eyes. Ammonia not only irritates the airways but also leads to persistent cough and increased risk of breathing problems. 

Cardiovascular toxins: As the name suggests, these toxins affect the heart by damaging the heart muscles and the circulatory system. The chemicals that can impact the blood circulation in the body and affect the functioning of the heart include carbon monoxide, nicotine, oxidants, hydrogen cyanide, arsenic, and acrolein. Carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide is known to interfere with the blood’s ability to carry oxygen whereas arsenic and acrolein can damage the arteries and interfere with the normal function of blood vessels.

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Carcinogens: The presence of tobacco-specific N-nitrosamines (TSNAs) in tobacco products are known to act as potential carcinogens. These chemicals can cause cancer of the lung, pancreas, oral cavity and esophagus. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and aromatic amines can cause lung cancer and bladder cancer in smokers. The metals such as arsenic and cadmium can cause lung cancer and may also play a role in bladder and kidney cancers. 

So the next time you smoke just think of what you are allowing into your body. Being aware of the harmful effects of these toxins on the body and taking a step closer to quit smoking can help you and your family to lead a happy and healthy life. Comment below and let us know whether you knew about the chemicals in cigarettes other than nicotine. 

(The article is reviewed by Dr. Swati Mishra, Medical Editor)

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1. Mishra S, Joseph RA, Gupta PC, et al. Trends in bidi and cigarette smoking in India from 1998 to 2015, by age, gender and education. BMJ Glob Health. 2016 Apr 6;1(1):e000005.

2. WHO. A Guide For Tobacco Users to Quit [Internet]. Geneva: WHO; 2014 [cited 7 September 2018]. 

3. Morgan JC, Byron MJ, Baig SA, et al. How people think about the chemicals in cigarette smoke: a systematic review. J Behav Med. 2017 Aug;40(4):553-564.

4. WHO. GATS India 2016-17 FactSheet [Internet]. 2017 [cited 24 July 2018].

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