Questions About Smoking, Tobacco, and Health

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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:

  • Cyanide
  • Benzene
  • Formaldehyde
  • Methanol (wood alcohol)
  • Acetylene (the fuel used in welding torches)
  • Ammonia

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.

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.


Last Medical Review: 02/13/2014
Last Revised: 02/13/2014