What you breathe in when you smoke

The substances and additives contained within cigarettes are extremely toxic. When you smoke, you inhale around 4,500 substances naturally present within tobacco, including nicotine (which leads to dependency), Carbon Monoxide (dangerous in that it prevents Oxygen from being properly transported by the blood), arsenic and cyanides.

You also breathe in:

  • Tar, which gets deposited in the bronchi and lungs and can cause cancer.
  • Additives including silicic, carbonic, acetic, formic and benzoic acids; titanium dioxide, whitening products, combustive accelerants, etc.
  • Ammoniac, added to tobacco by cigarette manufacturers to facilitate the absorption of nicotine into the bloodstream, thus ensuring smokers remain dependent on it.

The cigarette: a device for administering nicotine

Before the role played by additives can be appreciated, the way cigarettes work must be understood. The enduring success of the tobacco industry is a direct product of the addictive nature of nicotine and tobacco.  Tobacco manufacturers were the first to recognize that the cigarette, marketed as an accessory to a certain lifestyle, is in fact a device for administering a drug that leads to dependence. A multitude of documents produced by the tobacco industry demonstrate that tobacco products essentially function as sophisticated systems for administering nicotine, employing highly advanced techniques.

Philip Morris explains:

"The cigarette should be conceived not as a product but as a package. The product is nicotine ...Think of the cigarette pack as a storage container for a day's supply of nicotine ...Think of a cigarette as a dispenser for a dose unit of nicotine... Smoke is beyond question the most optimized vehicle of nicotine and the cigarette the most optimized dispenser of smoke". (Philip Morris, 1972)

RJR (RJ Reynolds Tobacco) accepts being a part of the pharmaceutical industry:

"In a sense, the tobacco industry may be thought of as being a specialized, highly ritualized, and stylized segment of the pharmaceutical industry". (RJR 1972)

The impact of additives on smoking behavior

Additive technology is an important tool employed by the tobacco industry in the production of this "package" or device for administering nicotine. Although some additive-free cigarettes have been put on the market, according to a verbal statement made by JL Pauly of Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co., around 10% of the weight of the average American cigarette today is made up of additives, mainly in the form of sugars, flavorings and humectants. Smaller quantities of further additives, which could be considered to play a more fundamental role in the product itself, may also be present. The available data indicate that cigarette manufacturers use additives for their ability to influence the pharmacological effects of nicotine, in order to make a certain product more attractive to young people who are new to smoking, or to mask the taste and occasional discomfort caused by the smoke.

Dependence mechanisms and the subtle role played by additives

On the simplest level, cigarettes allow a dose of the main active ingredient, nicotine, to reach the lungs of the smoker via a mixture of gas and particles that make up the smoke. Nicotine is rapidly absorbed into the blood thanks to the very large surface area of the lungs (as well as of the mouth and throat) and reaches the brain in less than ten seconds. Receptors in the brain react to the stimulation of the nicotine by releasing substances - dopamine and other neurotransmitters - which provide the smoker with a sensation described as a "hit" or "lift".  Over time, the receptors get used to receiving nicotine (a phenomenon known as tolerance), and if they are deprived for too long the smoker experiences withdrawal symptoms, which can be very disagreeable for many people. This chemical effect and the discomfort of withdrawal, when combined with psychological and social factors, lead to dependency on tobacco products. The following paragraphs will demonstrate how the transportation of nicotine to the nicotine receptors in the brain may be subtly influenced by the use of additives.

The harmful effects of smoking

The nicotine-carrying gas and particles of cigarette smoke contain thousands of chemical substances, many of which are toxic or carcinogenic. While it is nicotine that leads people to smoke, it is the other substances that cause most of the associated health damage.  These other substances are often grouped together under the term "tar", and it is tar that gives tobacco its distinctive smell and taste.  Along with gases such as Carbon Monoxide, produced by the burning of the cigarette, tar can cause cancer, heart and respiratory problems, and many other complaints. Legislation has been passed to try to reduce exposure to tar by demanding a reduction in the level of tar present in cigarettes.

"Light" cigarettes

In general, the use of additives in tobacco is closely linked to strategies aimed at reducing the tar content. The tar and nicotine levels in a cigarette are measured by a calibrated smoking machine which "smokes" the cigarette in a fixed number of puffs performed at regular intervals.  The tar and nicotine residues are collected, filtered and then weighed. Several governments have demanded a reduction of tar content measured in this way, in the hope of reducing smokers' exposure to tar and thereby reducing the health problems associated with tobacco consumption.

Light cigarettes: practical realities

Practically speaking, cigarettes are made "light" by fitting them with filters, and by enabling ventilation in the filters, which is their most important characteristic (Kozlowski et al. 1998). Tiny holes in the filter allow air to circulate, thus diluting the smoke and reducing the quantity of tar and nicotine residue collected by the measuring machine. The ventilation weakens the taste of the smoke, since the agents which determine the flavor are diluted by air. Nevertheless, smokers do not smoke like machines. If the smoke is diluted, the smoker will tend to "compensate" by smoking light cigarettes more intensively in order to obtain a satisfying dose of nicotine. The smoker can "compensate" by taking deeper, more frequent puffs on the cigarette, or by blocking the tiny holes, often without realizing it. Overall, smokers who smoke "light" cigarettes do not consume any less nicotine (Benowitz et al, 1983, Bates & Jarvis, 1999). A review of documents produced by the tobacco industry conducted by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) and the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, UK ("Low tar: why low tar cigarettes don't work and how the tobacco industry fools the smoking public") sheds further light on the ineffectiveness of "light" cigarettes as well as on what cigarette manufacturers know about this, and what they say in public.

Light cigarettes and additives

One of the main justifications for adding artificial flavors to light cigarettes is that they replace the flavors lost by the dilution of the smoke. In theory, the aim was to help people to choose a product which had lower tar content. However, the health benefits expected from low tar or "light" cigarettes have not occurred. At the same time, an extremely vague regulatory framework for additives has come to light. Although people who switch to "light " cigarettes may, in fact, inhale just as much tar and nicotine as before, they must take in more diluted smoke for this to be the case. It is a bit like watering down wine - you can still get drunk, but you will have to drink more and the taste is weaker.

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