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Actually, aside from tobacco, we are not entirely sure. Cigarettes are one of the few products of any sort on the market that aren't regulated. Food has to have a list of ingredients, all clothes have tags describing the fabric, electric devices are UL approved -- but cigarettes are entirely unregulated. The tobacco companies have released lists of additives to tobacco, but trusting someone who would say under oath, as the CEOs of all the major companies have, that nicotine isn't addictive is probably not a good idea. So we have to go with what the Federal Trade Commission found in the smoke that comes out of burning cigarettes. Of the more than 5,000 chemicals that the FTC found, over 40 are known human carcinogens; that is that they have been proven to cause cancer not only in lab animals but also in people. In the end it's usually not the nicotine that kills people -- it's these other chemicals.

Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide is the same odorless, colorless gas that comes out the tailpipe of your car or a faulty gas heater. In high enough concentrations it is deadly; in lower doses it causes shortness of breath and increased heart rate.

Normally red blood cells carry oxygen through out the body by binding it to a molecule called hemoglobin. Carbon monoxide attaches itself to hemoglobin instead of oxygen and deactivates these red blood cells for extended periods of time. Eventually the carbon monoxide falls off or the red blood cells are replaced; in the mean time, however, this carbon monoxide can be replaced by continued smoking. This is one of the key reasons athletes almost never smoke as over 10% of the body's hemoglobin can be inactivated at any one time.

The body is able to eliminate most of the carbon monoxide fairly quickly. Most people who quit feel more energetic and less short of breath within a few days of quitting.


Tar is the dark substance that actually carries the nicotine to the lungs. Along with the nicotine it also carries the long list of other chemicals we discussed above.

Benzene, Radon and Other Nasty Stuff

These are chemicals that the EPA has said you don't want in your home since they cause cancer. Inhaling them through a small white tube all day long is probably just as bad. Enough said.


Although only one of many dangerous substances in cigarettes, nicotine is the drug responsible for making cigarettes so addictive. Studies have shown nicotine to be as addictive as heroin and cocaine.

Within 7 seconds of inhaling on a cigarette, the nicotine has reached your brain. The drug acts upon receptor cells providing the "hit" that your body expects. This triggers various responses in your body; your heartbeat and breathing rate go up and blood vessels constrict.

By the time you have extinguished the cigarette, the nicotine level in your blood will have peaked; within a half-hour your body will have cleaned it out of the blood stream. This spiking is part of what makes cigarettes so addictive. The method of delivery --direct to the lungs and then to the brain -- and the intensity of its effects, help to make nicotine extremely addictive.

In the morning most smokers inhale deeply on their first cigarettes as the nicotine content in the blood has dropped overnight and they are quite practically in withdrawal. In reality smokers spend much of their time in withdrawal; stress, anxiety and boredom are all heightened by daily withdrawal in between cigarettes. In between cigarettes every smoker goes through a small scale version of what the quitter does. Over the day the smoker smokes enough cigarettes to maintain a sufficient nicotine blood level to prevent these withdrawal symptoms. Usually the minimum number to achieve this (regardless of nicotine content of the cigarette) is 10-12 cigarettes spaced over the day. Generally this explains why people who smoke less than half a pack a day are uncommon.

Nicotine also acts as a vasoconstrictor, meaning it decreases the diameter of your blood vessels making it more difficult for blood to flow through the body. This can lead to higher blood pressure and forces the heart to work harder. It may be one of the reasons for increased heart disease in long time smokers. More obvious indications are cold or clammy hands, as the extremities do not receive as much blood.

Just how and why nicotine affects the brain the way it does is poorly understood. While we know that it can act as both a stimulant (giving smokers a lift) or a depressant (relaxing smokers when they feel tense, or stressed.) Much of this seems dependent upon dosage and current levels of nicotine in the blood. For the moment we will just accept that it acts the way it does without stressing about it.


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