(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)
Want to stop smoking? Read this and you will. A cigarette is mainly made up of cured and finely cut tobacco, plus the paper it’s wrapped in, glue and usually a filter, but it contains a whole lot more and this is where the damage is done.
The main ingredient of cigarettes is a blend of three types of shredded tobacco leaf: flue-cured brightleaf, burley and oriental. The production process results in by-products including leaf stems, leaf pieces and tobacco dust. These can be added back into the blend with no noticeable change in quality. This results in tobacco by-products including reconstituted and blended leaf sheets and expanded stems. Ammonia is added to reconstituted leaf sheets, which is thought to make it a more effective deliverer of nicotine. Recycled tobacco offal is also sometimes added during the process.
One of the naturally forming chemicals found in the tobacco plant is nicotine, and of course no attempt is made to isolate it in the production process. Nicotine is a stimulant, promoting dependence. It passes through the body quickly and results in a person being more relaxed and alert. But nicotine causes havoc with dopamine and other neurotransmitters in the brain and the nicotine becomes highly addictive. Studies have shown it is more addictive than cocaine or heroin, although withdrawal is milder than heroin at least. Prolonged use of nicotine can cause all sorts of well-documented health problems.
Many other ingredients go into cigarettes. Various humectants, flavors and flavor enhancers are added to the tobacco mixture to make cigarettes more appealing. In 1994, the US Department of Health and Human Services found that the five major tobacco companies were adding a total of 599 chemical compounds during the production process, although not all at once. Interestingly, all these chemicals are approved as food additives and are used in food to preserve it or to improve its quality, while many are also used in cosmetics, fuels and various industrial processes.
These chemicals include some pleasant-sounding products such as apple juice, basil oil, chocolate, citric acid, coconut oil, coffee, guar gum, honey, menthol, mullein flowers, nutmeg powder, orange blossom water, prune juice, vanilla extract and vinegar. Even some of those with unpronounceable names are generally nothing more than innocent flavor or aroma enhancers.
But the list includes some nastier chemicals such as ammonia (a gas with a pungent odor), caffeine (which can paralyze and kill insects), levulinic acid (which increases nicotine delivery), heptanoic acid (which has a rancid odor), isobutanol (which can be a by-product of decaying organic matter), butanol (a primary alcohol), oleic acid (which comes from decaying insects) and skatole (which has a strong fecal odor).
One cigarette might contain more than 100 additives. A full list of the 599 additives can be found at http://www.tricountycessation.org/tobaccofacts/Cigarette-Ingredients.html.
The problem is not so much with most of the additives per se but what happens to many of them when they are ignited and smoke is produced. When these chemicals are burnt, their properties change and they can become dangerous substances. The 599 additives form more than 4,000 chemical compounds. At least 250 are harmful, including about 70 that can cause cancer. These carcinogens include acetaldehyde, arsenic, benzene, cadmium, ethylene oxide, formaldehyde, lead and vinyl chloride. Some of these chemicals can cause cancer of sites directly exposed to the smoke, such as lungs, mouth and throat. Others enter the bloodstream and are taken to other parts of the body, which can result in cancer of the pancreas, kidneys, bladder and uterus.
A description of some of these carcinogens and other toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke follows:
– acetone is a solvent used in nail polisher remover and can irritate the lungs and cause cancer
– arsenic is used as rat poison and can irritate the lungs and cause abnormal heartbeat
– benzene is a solvent associated with leukemia
– cadmium can cause kidney damage
– carbon monoxide is the main gas in cigarette smoke and is the same gas emitted as exhaust fumes from motor vehicles. It can reduce oxygen (including to unborn babies) at a time when the heart needs more of it due to the stimulant effect of the nicotine, increasing the risk of a heart attack. It also causes cholesterol build-up, resulting in arteriosclerosis. Together with nicotine, carbon monoxide can cause peripheral vascular disease, leading to possible gangrene of the feet
– formaldehyde is used to preserve bodies and can cause cancer as well as gastrointestinal, respiratory and skin problems
– phenol is found in plastics and can cause kidney and liver damage, and reduce blood pressure
– tar is actually a mixture of hundreds of chemicals which goes into the lungs when inhaling; 70 percent stays there, promoting bronchitis and emphysema
– vinyl chloride can cause headache and dizziness, as well as hallucinations, unconsciousness, and respiratory failure.
The contents of a cigarette and its smoke are certainly a deadly mixture. Nicotine is one of the most addictive of substances. Many additives are included in the cigarette production process, but it is their alteration with heat that can cause so many diseases. If legislators had their time again, cigarettes would surely be added to the list of illegal drugs.