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Tobacco and Health

Nicotine: An Addictive Drug

Through the use of cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco, nicotine is one of the most heavily used addictive drugs in the United States. Nicotine is the primary component of tobacco, and is the primary reason that tobacco is addictive.

In 1988, the Surgeon General concluded that cigarettes and other forms of tobacco, such as cigars, pipe tobacco and chewing tobacco, are addictive and that nicotine is the drug in tobacco that causes addiction.

Nicotine provides an almost immediate “kick” because it causes a discharge of epinephrine from the adrenal cortex. This stimulates the central nervous system and endocrine glands, which causes a sudden release of glucose. Stimulation is then followed by depression and fatigue, leading the user to seek more nicotine.

Find out more about nicotine addiction from the National Institute on

Drug Abuse.

What is Tar?

In addition to nicotine, cigarette smoke is primarily composed of a dozen gases (mainly carbon monoxide) and tar. The tar in a cigarette, which varies from about 15 mg for a regular cigarette to 7 mg in a low-tar cigarette, exposes the user to an increased risk of lung cancer, emphysema, and bronchial disorders. The risks from toxin-containing tar from smoking, along with gases such as carbon monoxide, are not lessened by use of light or low-tar cigarettes. The only way to lessen the risk is to quit.

The carbon monoxide in tobacco smoke increases the chance of cardiovascular diseases. The Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that secondhand smoke causes lung cancer in adults and greatly increases the risk of respiratory illnesses in children and sudden infant death.


Addiction to nicotine results in withdrawal symptoms when a person tries to stop smoking. Studies have found that, when chronic smokers were deprived of cigarettes for 24 hours, they had increased anger, hostility, aggression, and loss of social cooperation. Those suffering from withdrawal also take longer to regain emotional equilibrium following stress. During periods of abstinence and/or craving, smokers have shown impairment across a wide range of psychomotor and cognitive functions, such as language comprehension.

The Health Effects of Smoking

Short Term:

  • Airway irritability
  • Increased phlegm production
  • Persistent cough
  • Decreased physical performance
  • Increase in LDLs or “bad fat”
  • Plaque on the artery wall
  • Thrombosis, or clot, inside a blood vessel
  • Constriction of blood vessels
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Heartburn and reflux disease
  • Peptic ulcers
  • Periodontal diseases
  • Halitosis, or bad breath
  • Inflammation of the middle ear
  • Sinusitis
  • Congestion
  • Pneumonia
  • Scurvy and other micronutrient disorders
  • Oxidative damage
  • Drug interactions

Long Term:

  • Earlier menopause
  • Increased risk of having stillborn or premature infants or infants with low birth weight and children with conduct disorders
  • Increased probability that female children will smoke and will persist in smoking
  • Decreased physical performance
  • Impotence
  • Premature hair loss
  • Increased wrinkles and crow’s feet
  • Chronic coughing
  • Hearing loss
  • Vision problems and loss
  • Gum disease
  • Osteoporosis
  • Delayed healing process
  • Susceptibility to colds
    and flu
  • Increased headaches
  • Increased stress


Find research about the health effects of smoking.

Secondhand Smoke

There is no risk-free level of secondhand smoke exposure. Even brief exposure to secondhand smoke can be dangerous. Secondhand smoke contains at least 250 chemicals known to be toxic, including more than 50 that can cause cancer.

Secondhand smoke exposure causes heart disease and lung cancer in nonsmoking adults. It also causes respiratory symptoms in children and slows their lung growth. It causes sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), acute respiratory infections, ear problems, and more frequent and severe asthma attacks in children.

Parents play a critical role in protecting youth from the dangers of secondhand smoke. For more information visit, Protecting Kids from Smoke.

For more about secondhand smoke in general, visit our Breathe Easy section.

Research about Tobacco and Health

Studies of addiction and nicotine have been instrumental in developing medications and behavior treatments for tobacco addiction, and better treatments for the withdrawal symptoms that may interfere with individuals’ attempts to quit. Recent progress in the area of tobacco addiction includes:

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