What is in a cigarette? And why you need to worry about much, much more than just cigarettes…

Actually, no one fully knows everything that’s in a cigarette. According to Professor Siegel:

Only around 5300 of the chemicals in cigarette smoke have been identified. Other chemicals (up to 100,000) have yet to be identified.

What we do know is that some of those chemicals cause a lot of damage!

Chemicals in Cigarette Smoke

Before we start, let’s get one thing clear.

We need chemicals. In fact, we are chemicals. Chemicals make up our body, our food and the world we live in.

There just happen to be some particularly nasty ones in cigarette smoke…

What’s bad for you in cigarettes?

I don’t want to bore you with all the things that you will find in cigarette smoke. (Plus listing all 5000 known chemicals would probably take a while.)

So I’ve chosen ones that you are likely to recognise…


A dead body lying a morgue.

Also used to preserve dead bodies.



Also used to kill people, and much valued by detective writers.



Used as an additive in petrol.

Hydrogen Cyanide

The entrance to a Nazi Death Camp.

Used to kill Jews in Nazi death camps.


Nail polish being removed with acetone.

Used to remove nail varnish.

We don’t know which of these are hurting us

All that sounds pretty dramatic.

However, the reason you’ll see those particular chemicals mentioned again and again is purely for dramatic effect.

But the poison is in the dose, and without knowing the quantity of each chemical (which can be measured in parts per billion) we can’t know which of them are harming us.

Cigarettes are NOT the only place where you get these chemicals!

tap water

What’s not so well known is that you are exposed to things which are bad for you (in sufficient quantities) every day.

The water you drinking, for example, may well include:

  • chlorine
  • arsenic (Velvet Glove Iron First claims there is far more arsenic in drinking water than in cigarettes)
  • radium
  • aluminiun
  • copper
  • lead
  • mercury
  • cadmium
  • barium
  • hormones
  • nitrates
  • pesticides

As we said before, the poison is in the dose, and most drinking water should be safe.

But rather scarily a study in Taiwan found a link between the level of arsenic in drinking water supplies and rates of lung cancer.

(If you are worried, I find beer, wine, vodka and whisky to be very acceptable alternatives to water 🙂 )

Things get much worse when you breathe in traffic fumes. Traffic fumes contain a chemical, 8-OHdG, which can damage your DNA, and are thought to kill 3,000,000 people a year.

Anyway, back to cigarettes…

Cigarette are still bad for you – but it’s not the nicotine that does the damage…

Arthur Flood.

While we may not know exactly which chemicals are doing most of the damage of smoking, we do know that smoking is incredibly bad for us.

But it’s not nicotine that causes most of the harm from smoking, but the smoke and tar created when you burn tobacco.

(See nicotine and electronic cigarettes: 10 facts every user should know:  and Are electronic cigarette safe? The shocking truth for more information.)

In fact, it doesn’t matter what smoke you inhale, it’s bad for you.

That’s why alternatives such as Snus and electronic cigarettes are 95% less harmful than cigarettes – because there’s no burning, and no smoke.


E-cigarettes around 95% less harmful than tobacco estimates landmark review, Public Health England, Aug 2015

Harm Reduction, Action on Smoking and Heath

Chen C, Hsu L: Ingested arsenic, cigarette smoking, and lung cancer risk: a follow-up study in arseniasis-endemic areas in Taiwan PubMed.gov, Dec 2004

Siegel, M: FDA Center for Tobacco Products Has the Facts Wrong on Cigarette Science, Jan 2011

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4 thoughts on “What is in a cigarette? And why you need to worry about much, much more than just cigarettes…”

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