What is in a cigarette?

We often hear that there are over 4,000 chemicals in a cigarette. More precisely more than 4,000 chemicals have been identified in cigarette smoke. These chemicals are the product of combustion of the cigarette, and there are a number of articles about them and how they cause harm (cut and paste the links at the bottom).

But what is actually in a cigarette…before it is lit?
The cigarette itself typically contains a large number of ingredients, including the tobacco leaf, tobacco paper, ink used to write on and color the filter and paper, the filter itself (fibers of which may be inhaled)—, and over 500 potential additives (e.g.,acetaldehyde, ammonia, cocoa, levulinic acid, and menthol). Some of the chemicals are added as part of the agricultural process required to grow a healthy tobacco plant (insecticides, fertilizers, metals absorbed from the soil etc), some chemicals become attached to the tobacco leaf during post-harvesting processes (e.g. curing) and then some chemicals are intentionally added with the intent of altering the chemical effects or taste of the smoked product (e.g. menthol).
One of the best articles I’ve read on the subject of cigarette additives was written by Clive bates, Professor Martin Jarvis, and Professor Greg Connolly on behalf of UK ASH (Action of Smoking and Health). The article link is provided below, but here are some of the summary findings:
“Additives are used to make cigarettes that provide high levels of 'free' nicotine which increases the addictive 'kick' of the nicotine. Ammonium compounds can fulfil this role by raising the alkalinity of smoke
Additives are used to enhance the taste of tobacco smoke, to make the product more desirable to consumers. Although seemingly innocuous the addition of flavourings making the cigarette 'attractive' and 'palatable' is in itself cause for concern.
Sweeteners and chocolate may help to make cigarettes more palatable to children and first time users; eugenol and menthol numb the throat so the smoker cannot feel the smoke's aggravating effects.
Additives such as cocoa may be used to dilate the airways allowing the smoke an easier and deeper passage into the lungs exposing the body to more nicotine and higher levels of tar.
Some additives are toxic or addictive in their own right or in combination. When additives are burned, new products of combustion are formed and these may be toxic or pharmacologically active.
Additives are used to mask the smell and visibility of side-stream smoke, making it harder for people to protect themselves and undermining claims that smoking is anti-social without at the same time reducing the health risks of passive smoking.”

As I have discussed in previous posts, we used to think that some of these additives, like menthol for example, were simply intended to provide a distinctive taste. Now, however, we are starting to see more evidence suggesting that simple additives like menthol can influence the way the cigarette is smoked and hence its addictiveness and harmfulness.
But although there is evidence that certain ingredients in tobacco may make it more harmful, we also need to be clear that even tobacco with no additives is lethal and addictive when lit and smoked.

Tobacco Additives: Cigarette engineering and addiction.

What is in cigarette smoke? 2/17/08

Carbon-monoxide in cigarette smoke. 8/0208
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About the Author

MA, MAppSci, PhD

Dr. Jonathan Foulds is an expert in the field of tobacco addiction.