What in tobacco smoke is harmful?


Cigarettes, cigars, and pipe tobacco are made from dried tobacco leaves, and ingredients are added for flavor and to make smoking more pleasant. The smoke from these products is a complex mixture of chemicals produced by the burning of tobacco and its additives. Tobacco smoke is made up of more than 7,000 chemicals, including over 70 known to cause cancer (carcinogens). Some of these substances cause heart and lung diseases, too, and all of them can be deadly.


You might be surprised to know some of the chemicals found in tobacco smoke include:

  • Acetone – found in nail polish remover
  • Acetic Acid –  an ingredient in hair dye
  • Ammonia – a common household cleaner
  • Arsenic – used in rat poison
  • Benzene – found in rubber cement
  • Butane – used in lighter fluid
  • Cadmium – active component in battery acid
  • Carbon Monoxide – released in car exhaust fumes
  • Formaldehyde – embalming fluid
  • Hexamine – found in barbecue lighter fluid
  • Lead – used in batteries
  • Naphthalene – an ingredient in moth balls
  • Methanol – a main component in rocket fuel
  • Nicotine – used as insecticide
  • Tar – material for paving roads
  • Toluene – used to manufacture paint

Tobacco smoke also contains tar and the poison gases carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide. The ingredient that produces the effect people are looking for is nicotine, an addictive drug and one of the harshest chemicals in tobacco smoke.

The tobacco leaves used to make cigarettes and cigars contain radioactive materials; the amount depends on the soil the plants were grown in and fertilizers used. But this means that the smoke contains small amounts of radioactive material, too, which smokers take into their lungs as they inhale. These radioactive particles build up in the lungs, and over time can mean a big dose of radiation. This may be another key factor in smokers getting lung cancer.

Tobacco control efforts have saved 8 million Americans from premature death and extended their lives by an average of almost 20 years.

Does smoking cause cancer?

Yes. Smoking accounts for at least 30% of all cancer deaths in the United States. It causes 87% of lung cancer deaths in men and 70% in women. Smoking also causes cancers of the nasopharynx (upper throat), nasal cavity, paranasal sinuses, lip, larynx (voice box), mouth, pharynx (throat), esophagus (swallowing tube), and bladder. It also has been linked to the development of cancers of the pancreas, cervix, ovary, colorectum, kidney, stomach, and some types of leukemia. Cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and spit and other types of smokeless tobacco all cause cancer. There is no safe way to use tobacco.

Smoking can cause cancer and then block your body from fighting it:

  • Poisons in cigarette smoke can weaken the body’s immune system, making it harder to kill cancer cells. When this happens, cancer cells keep growing without being stopped.
  • Poisons in tobacco smoke can damage or change a cell’s DNA. DNA is the cell’s “instruction manual” that controls a cell’s normal growth and function. When DNA is damaged, a cell can begin growing out of control and create a cancer tumor.

Doctors have known for years that smoking causes most lung cancer. It’s still true today, when nearly 9 out of 10 lung cancers are caused by smoking cigarettes. In fact, smokers have a greater risk for lung cancer today than they did in 1964, even though they smoke fewer cigarettes. One reason may be changes in how cigarettes are made and what they contain.

Treatments are getting better for lung cancer, but it still kills more men and women than any other type of cancer. More than 7,300 nonsmokers die each year from lung cancer caused by secondhand smoke.

Smoking can cause cancer almost anywhere in your body, including the:

  • Mouth, nose, and throat
  • Larynx
  • Trachea
  • Esophagus
  • Lungs
  • Stomach
  • Pancreas
  • Liver
  • Kidneys and ureters
  • Bladder
  • Colon and rectum
  • Cervix
  • Bone marrow and blood (leukemia)

Women smokers with breast cancer and men with prostate cancer who smoke may be more likely to die from these diseases than nonsmokers.

Smokeless tobacco also causes cancer, including cancers of the:

  • Esophagus
  • Mouth and throat
  • Pancreas

Older smokers are at greater risks from smoking because they have smoked longer (an average of 40 years), tend to be heavier smokers, and are more likely to suffer from smoking-related illnesses. They are also significantly less likely than younger smokers to believe that smoking harms their health.

Key Facts About Tobacco Use Among Older Adults

  • Today’s generation of older Americans had smoking rates among the highest of any U.S. generation. In the mid-1960s, about 54 percent of adult males were current smokers and another 21 percent were former smokers; in 2008, about 23 percent of adult males were smokers and another 24 percent were former smokers.
  • In 2008, over 17 million Americans over the age of 45 smoked, accounting for over 22 percent of all adult smokers. Nine percent of Americans over 65 years of age currently smoked.

Health Effects of Smoking

  • An estimated 438,000 Americans die each year from diseases caused by smoking. Smoking is responsible for more than one in five U.S. deaths. About half of all regular cigarette smokers will eventually be killed by the addiction.
  • Smoking is directly responsi­ble for more than 90 percent of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, or em­physema and chronic bronchi­tis) deaths and approximately 80 to 90 percent of lung cancer deaths in women and men, respectively. Smoking is also a major risk factor for coro­nary heart disease, stroke and lower respiratory tract infections – all leading causes of death in those over 50 years of age.
  • COPD prevalence rates are highest among those 65 years of age and older and the disease consistently ranks among the top ten most common chronic health conditions and sources of daily activity limitation. COPD is the fourth-leading cause of death and is predicted to become third by 2020.
  • Men 65 or older who smoke are twice as likely to die from a stroke, and women smokers are about one and a half times as likely to die from a stroke than their nonsmoking counterparts. The risk of dying from a heart attack is 60 percent higher for smokers than nonsmokers 65 or older.
  • Cigarette smokers have a far greater chance of developing dementia of any kind including Alzheimer’s disease compared to nonsmokers.Smokers also have two to three times the risk of developing cataracts, the leading