• What is tobacco?
• Is tobacco a drug?
• Where did tobacco come from?
• What do they mean by tar in cigarettes? And how does it affect your health?
• What does carbon monoxide do to your body?
• What will smoking one cigarette do?
• Is it dangerous to smoke only a cigarette or two?
• Are “low-tar” cigarettes better for you?
• If you are around someone who smokes, can the smoke be harmful to you?
• Once you’ve hurt yourself by smoking, do you ever get better?
• What are the chances of being cured of lung cancer?
• What does smoking do to pregnant women and their babies?
• Isn’t spit tobacco safer to use than cigarettes?
• Are cigars and pipes safer to smoke than cigarettes?
• What about clove cigarettes?
• What are bidis?
• Are hookahs (water pipes) safer than cigarettes? *
• What about other substances, like prescription drugs, marijuana and inhalants?*
Sources: Community Intervention Inc.’s Tobacco Awareness Program Facilitator’s Guide, except as noted. Used with permission. * indicates research by Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth
Tobacco is a plant whose brown-colored leaves are cured and dried. People can smoke tobacco in cigars, cigarettes or a pipe. People can also chew tobacco or snort it as snuff.
Contrary to what many people believe, tobacco is a drug. By definition, a drug is a nonfood substance that can cause changes in the function of the body and/or mind. Tobacco leaves contain a complex mixture of chemicals that affect the body in many ways. Nicotine is one of the main ingredients in tobacco. It is a drug that occurs naturally in the tobacco leaf, acting paradoxically as both a stimulant and a depressant. It is the substance that causes the craving for tobacco. Nicotine can kill a person when taken in high concentrations all at once. Its action on the cardiovascular system, increasing cardiac output and raising blood pressure, probably contributes to the elevated risk of cardiovascular mortality in smokers.
People have smoked tobacco for thousands of years. Long before Columbus sailed to the New World, Native Americans used tobacco in religious and political ceremonies. When Columbus returned to Spain, he took tobacco seeds back with him. As a result, tobacco use spread quickly throughout the rest of Europe.
At Jamestown, the first English colony in the New World, farmers cultivated tobacco, beginning its history as a key export crop in Virginia. (Learn more about the history of Jamestown and tobacco at tobacco.org and Jamestown Rediscovery.)*
Cigarette tar is a product of the burned resin of the tobacco leaves. It is the brownish glue on the filter tips of cigarettes. What we call tar is actually a collection of tiny particles. Smoking a cigarette causes tar to be deposited on the respiratory tract. Aiding the tar in its effects on the respiratory system is the action of various gases in cigarette smoke, carbon monoxide in particular. Tar coats and irritates the linings of the air passages in the lungs.
One of the most harmful of the gases in cigarette smoke, carbon monoxide is the same gas as that in car exhaust. Carbon monoxide (CO) replaces oxygen in the blood, making it difficult for the body’s cells to get all the oxygen they need. CO also promotes cholesterol deposits in the arteries, contributing to cardiovascular disease. Elevated CO blood levels impair vision and judgment, making smoking potentially dangerous to drivers. Elevated CO levels can cause tiredness, a condition that bothers many smokers.
After smoking one cigarette, the heart beats faster, blood vessels constrict, and blood pressure goes up. Smoking one cigarette can cause fingers and toes to feel cooler, and the linings of the nose, throat and lungs to be irritated. Smoking one cigarette increases hand tremors and can also make you feel dizzy.
Smoking only one or two cigarettes can cause dizziness and nausea. Smoking over many years can directly cause of contribute to serious and even fatal diseases. Although you may think it won’t happen to you, just smoking one or two cigarettes may result in the development of a habit. Every cigarette causes some harm to the body. Autopsies show that even relatively light smokers have lung damage. Besides, most smokers seem to find it difficult to smoke lightly: The average U.S. smoker consumers nearly a pack and a half of cigarettes a day.
Cigarettes with less tar and nicotine than other cigarettes do not protect you against the health hazards of smoking. You can still get diseases associated with smoking. And if a smoker takes more and deeper puffs from a “low-tar” cigarette, then that cigarette effectively becomes a higher tar cigarette. Some “low-tar” cigarettes may replace tar with other substances known to be carcinogenic (cancer-causing) or toxic (poisonous).
Secondhand smoke (also known as passive smoking) can affect those who are near a smoker. Nonsmokers inhale the nicotine and gases produced when a cigarette burns. Scientists have identified passive smoke as the third leading preventable cause of death, behind active smoking and alcohol. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates 3,800 deaths per year in the United States are attributed to passive smoking, which is greater than all the other carcinogens regulated by the EPA combined. Others estimate that figure to be as high as 50,000 deaths per year. Respiratory inflections are twice as common in young children whose parents smoke than those with nonsmoking parents. Children of parents who smoke also have a slower rate of growth in lung function as the lung matures. This may lead to a increased susceptibility to developing lunch disease later in life.
Yes, if the smoker stops soon enough. In smokers who have stopped before the onset of irreversible lung or heart and circulatory disease, the body begins to repair itself. After a year of nonsmoking, the risk of a heart attack begins to drop; after 10 years of nonsmoking, it’s about the same as that of someone who has never smoked. Lung cancer risk begins to go down with quitting smoking, dropping steadily to about that of a person who has never smoked after 10 to 15 years. In fact, overall mortality of ex-smokers eventually approaches that of people who’ve never smoked if they stay off cigarettes for 10 to 15 years.
Very low; the five-year survival rate is less than 10 percent. Most forms of the disease produce no symptoms until it’s far advanced.
Pregnant women who smoke have higher rates of miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and of delivering babies who weigh below average at birth (with consequent risk of disease and/or death). More of their babies die soon after birth than those of nonsmoking mothers.
Using spit tobacco (chewing tobacco or snuff) is not a safe alternative to smoking. Users still increase their risk of developing cancer of the mouth and throat. Using spit tobacco can cause various forms of cancer in and around the mouth and can cause leukoplakia (a precancerous sore), gum disease, receding gums, tooth loss, heart disease and stroke. In addition, the use of spit tobacco can cause bad breath, tooth abrasion, stained teeth, a lowered sense of taste and smell, and slow healing of mouth wounds.
Smoking cigars and pipes is not safe because they contain many of the same harmful ingredients as cigarettes. Cigars can contain as much as 40 times more tar and nicotine than cigarettes. Lung cancer and other tobacco-related causes of death are significantly higher in people who smoke cigars or pipes than in nonsmokers. Carcinogens are found in similar levels in the smoke of all tobacco products. Additionally, pipe and cigar smokers have a higher incidence of oral cancer. Pipe and cigar smokers can be just as addicted to nicotine and require the same interventions.
Clove cigarettes are not a safe alternative to cigarettes, either. In fact, clove cigarettes are two-thirds tobacco. They are imported from Indonesia and contain a mixture of tobacco and chopped cloves. Clove cigarettes share all the known hazards of tobacco cigarettes, plus hazards caused by the chemicals in cloves, which have been implicated in some cases of pulmonary disease and failure.
Bidis, imported primarily from India, come in various flavors (e.g., chocolate, vanilla and strawberry) and appeal to teenagers the way flavored drinks might. They look like marijuana joints, are 100 percent tobacco and have no filters. Since it takes an average of 28 puffs to keep a bidi lit until it is finished (compared to nine puffs for a cigarette), users will smoke them harder and inhale more tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide. One study found that bidis produce approximately three times the carbon monoxide and nicotine and approximately five times the amount of tar as cigarettes. Bidis increase the user’s risk for coronary heart disease, as well as oral cancers and cancer of the lungs, stomach and liver.
Hookahs – Indian and Middle Eastern water pipes like those used by the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland – have become increasingly popular with college-age teens, with hookah bars multiplying like white rabbits around university campuses. And of course, college-age teens are big influencers of high school teens.
Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) are finding that about 20 percent of college students are smoking hookahs and there’s a misperception among many that the hookah may be less dangerous than cigarettes or cigars, says Linda Hancock, director of VCU’s Office of Health Promotion.
“What students don't seem to get is that hookahs do have nicotine and they do have very toxic chemicals in the smoke because the tobacco and fruit flavorings are moist, so they have to light a piece of charcoal on fire to keep it lit,” Hancock says.
In fact, she adds, “Hookah smoke is MORE toxic than tobacco smoke.”
Many college students believe that hookah smoking “is a safe alternative because the harmful toxins in tobacco are being filtered out in the water, but this is false,” Hancock says. “Hookah smoke still contains nicotine, carbon monoxide, and other hazardous substances. According to the American Cancer Society, these harmful toxins are linked to different types of cancers, primarily lung, heart disease and asthma.”
Using and/or abusing marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, inhalants and other substances like alcohol and prescription and over the counter drugs can be even more dangerous to your health than cigarette smoking. In addition to the danger of hallucination and loss of coordination, regularly smoking marijuana, for instance, may make you more likely to develop respiratory tract cancers and diseases of the mouth. Smoking one marijuana joint can be as harmful to the lungs as smoking five cigarettes, according to a 2007 study by the Medical Research Institute of New Zealand. And smoking cocaine can result in life-threatening acute lung injury and harm to vital organs.