A common idea, amongst smokers and non-smokers alike, is that smoking causes tar deposits in the lungs.  These tar deposits supposedly build up and cause the lungs to turn black, and it is believed that these tars lead to lung cancer,[1] and Cancer Research UK says of tar “a sticky black residue made up of thousands of chemicals that stays in the smoker’s lungs and causes cancer.”  However, it does not take much logical thought, and science, to realise this not only isn’t true, but can’t be true.  The idea that smoking causes black lungs is no more than a myth, and the evidence for this is plentiful.  

Possibly the first thing people say on the subject is that they have seen those pictures of a black smokers’ lung and a pink non-smokers’ lung.  While it may be true that the black lung was that of a smoker and the pink lung that of a non-smoker, that is not the end of the story – we now know that cancerous organs turn black.  A while ago channel 4 ran some programmes of autopsies done live by Dr Von Hagens, and one episode was on cancer.  The woman having the autopsy done was ravaged with cancer, and it was apparent which organs were cancerous by their colour – they were all black.  Going back to the pictures of the two lungs, they are always of a smokers’ lung afflicted with cancer, and a non-smokers’ lung without cancer – in other words, the two lungs are not comparable.  If a smokers’ lung was compared with a non-smokers’ lung and neither had cancer, they would both look identical, and the same is true for a smoker and non-smokers’ lung with cancer.  Furthermore, the photos invariably are of the outside of the lung and not the inside.  Cigarette smoke never reaches the outside of the lung and subsequently would have no chance to turn it black.

Today, even those conducting autopsies admit that looking at lungs alone is not a way to tell if the deceased smoked.  Wray Kephart used to work in hospitals, performing autopsies (usually on the behalf of insurance companies).  Kephart claims to have done around 1560 autopsies, and he says it is normally impossible to tell whether the deceased was a smoker or not from autopsy.  This was confirmed by Dr Jan Zeldenrust, a Dutch pathologist for the Government of Holland from 1951 - 1984.  In a television interview in the 1980's he stated that, translated from Dutch, "I could never see on a pair of lungs if they belonged to a smoker or non-smoker.  I can see clearly the difference between sick and healthy lungs.  The only black lungs I've seen are from peat-workers and coal miners, never from smokers".

Further confirmation came recently when I was able to speak to a Canadian Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) named Adam Highberg.  The discussion was mainly about oral cancers, but he also spoke briefly about smoker's lungs, saying:

"I have seen diseased lungs before, and sometimes in the case of smokers, but not always.  These are normally found in people who live and work in unhealthy environments for extended periods of time.  You know, the guy who works in a fiberglass plant but never wears a mask.  Because of this, it would be almost impossible to say that black lungs are solely that of smoking; I believe that it is far more likely an environment issue"

The lungs are always clear unless the deceased lived in large city where there is a large amount of industrial pollution, or, as already stated, ravaged with cancer.  Living in a city, or any area with a significant amount of pollution, is one factor that many people are unaware of or choose to ignore when it comes to the state of the lungs.  Anyone who lives in, or visits, such a place will be aware of the black that they either cough up or produce when blowing their nose, and it is this same produce that can be seen in X-rays on the lungs.  The produce in question is elemental carbon, which will indeed stick to the lungs and living in a built-up area for a long time can turn the lungs black.  This can be done as a little test for those with curiosity, or who just want to see for themselves – simply ask someone who lives in a city, and has done for a long time, to go for an X-ray and see how their lungs look.  Similarly, ask a long-term smoker, preferably not from a city, to go for the same X-ray and compare the results.  With the exception of extreme cases, such as those who smoke over 3 packs (60 cigarettes) a day, doctors are unable to tell if someone smokes just by looking at their lungs.  There is a man who runs his own smoking website who has this to say: 

 “…doctors can not tell the difference between a smoker and a non-smoker from a chest X-ray. I determined this personally by having thirty chest X-rays done on myself by thirty different doctors. All thirty told me that I was a non-smoker.”[2] 

Another common misconception is that cigarettes contain tar – they don’t. At least, not the type of tar that is used on roads, as most people believe.  As stated at the start of this chapter, the general belief is the tar from cigarettes deposits in the lungs and causes cancer.  This simply is not the case.  If, indeed, cigarettes caused tar to be deposited in the lungs of smokers then each and every one would die of asphyxiation long before they ever got the chance to get cancer.  Tar is a very thick substance, and can kill people very easily.  In the days when Christianity was illegal, one of the ways the martyrs were killed was dipping their body in tar – the tar blocked up their pores and stopped their skin being able to breathe, thus killing them.  Clearly, there is no way someone could live with tar in their lungs.  Furthermore, if there was tar in cigarettes it would not only be in the lungs – it would be in the mouth of the smoker, in ashtrays, on fingers, and smokers’ would cough up chunks of black tar.  This has never happened.  Let’s take a look at the facts:  

In the United Kingdom, full strength cigarettes contain 10mg of ‘tar’, and in America they contain 20mg of ‘tar’.  For arguments’ sake, we will use the American levels as this would accumulate faster. The lung capacity of an average adult human is about six litres, which is 6,000 cubic centimetres.[3]At room temperature, one cubic centimetre (one ml) of water weighs about one gram. Tar however, being an oily substance, floats on water, so one ml weighs less than a gram. The exact density of tar depends on its composition. Tar is usually a mixture of many different oily chemicals. At its densest though, one gram of tar occupies about 1.25 ml of volume.  At 20 mg (0.025 ml) of "tar" per cigarette, it would take at least 50 cigarettes to yield one gram of "tar". That's two and a half packs of cigarettes. This means that, if you smoke one pack of full flavour cigarettes, you would have about 0.5 ml of "tar" in your lungs. Because your lungs hold about 6,000 ml of air, you would have to smoke about 12,000 packs of cigarettes to completely fill them with "tar". Smoking one pack per day, that would take about 33 years. This means that anyone who started smoking at age 15 would have nothing but a thick slurry of tar oozing out of their nose and mouth by age 48. There would be no air left in his or her lungs at all, just "tar". This however, is not the end of the story. Obviously, if your lungs were completely filled with tar, then you would suffocate and die. Your lungs do not have to be completely filled to result in suffocation; about a cup (500 ml) will do. That's only about 1,000 packs of full flavoured cigarettes. You could do that in just under three years at a pack a day. If the popular myths about cigarette "tar" were true, then every pack-a-day smoker would be dead, from suffocation, before the end of three years (Isaac.idkcomp.com).  This obviously is not the case, as everyone either knows or has seen an elderly smoker, or knows people who have been smoking for over three years.  Even before a smoker reaches the stage of 500ml of tar being in their lungs to kill them, they would certainly have very minimal lung capacity and would be constantly out of breath – to the point where any exercise, including walking, would be dangerous as their lungs could not provide the body with the oxygen it needs.  I have had one person attempt to counter this by saying that the body rids itself of toxins and waste.  Anyone with any knowledge of tar would realise that the body cannot simply eject it – tar in the body stays there.  If it really were so easy to get rid of, it would not have killed so many martyrs whom had it smeared on their skin to cause death by suffocation.  

Those who smoke pipes, or know someone who does, are no doubt aware of the black liquid that can accumulate.  Due to the fact people are constantly told about tobacco ‘tar’ but are not actually told what it is, it is another common misconception that the black liquid in pipes is this tar.  In actuality, it is not tar but soot.  When anything is burned (oxidised) the by-product is water – soot is nothing but condensed smoke (some people will instantly assume the soot causes cancer, but it must be remembered the smoke remains in the pipe and simply remains a by-product).  We can prove this by looking at chimneys: soot builds up in a chimney because it is mixed with water, and it is this same chemistry that leads to the black liquid seen in pipes.  This begs the question of ‘what is the tar in cigarettes?’.  According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, tar is “total particulate matter…less nicotine and water”.  In other words, cigarette tar is the solid remains once the water and nicotine products have gone (through smoking, or, at least, the tobacco product being lit).   It is also said the tar is “the complex of particulate matter in the smoke that is left behind on a filter after subtracting all the nicotine and moisture.”[4]However, simple logic disproves this: there is no sticky substance left either on or in the filter of a cigarette, it is merely discolouration (and cutting a used filter and placing it under a microscope reveals no brown particles, or any difference to an unused filter than the colour).  How do we know?  Simple – removing a used filter shows there is no moisture, residue or sticky substance.  Furthermore, if the tar accumulates in a filter, then when one smokes an unfiltered cigarette the sticky tar would be apparent in the mouth and fingers of the smoke.  However, this is not the case.  Clearly, then, the brown state of the filter is nothing more than discolouration – the same way a coffee cup changes colour and tea and coffee stain the teeth of those drinking it, and indeed the same way a smokers’ teeth and fingers can turn a yellowish colour.  A very easy experiment can also prove this: place a piece of white cloth or towel in front of your mouth and exhale smoke onto it – a small brown patch will appear but no residue whatsoever.   

This notion of smoking causing the lungs to turn black can be traced back to 1948.  Ernst Wynder, then a first-year medical student in St Louis, was witness to an autopsy of a man who had died of lung cancer and he noted the lungs were blackened.  The sight roused his curiousity and he looked into the background of the patient – discovering that there was no obvious exposure to air pollution, but that the deceased had smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for thirty years, he linked the two.  Wynder then spent his career ‘proving’ cigarettes caused cancer, although he was forced to admit the data he had compiled was inaccurate (Wynder later published books containing slides of black, cancerous lungs, leading people to assume it was smoking that caused it.  He later admitted he was wrong, though.  Wynder will be looked at more extensively in chapter 5).  However, as we are now aware, through advancements in science and our understanding of cancer, it was actually the cancer itself that blackened the lungs – not the cigarettes.  It is clear, then, that the premise smoking blackens lungs – and, indeed, causes cancer – was flawed and inaccurate from the start.

Thus, it is obvious that smoking cannot and does not leave tar in the lungs, nor does it turn the lungs black.  Black lungs are the result of one of two things: living in an area with high pollution; or cancer.  The difference is easy to tell – carbon deposits are just that: deposits. Cancer, on the other hand, will ravage the whole organ.  In looking at the pictures comparing a non-smokers’ lung with a smokers’ lung, they are a non-cancerous lung and a cancerous lung.

[1]http://www.cnn.com/HEALTH/9610/17/nfm/smoking.gun/index.html [2]http://isaac.idkcomp.com/EDTORIAL/TAR.HTM?tnow=1205870771487
[4]Ashton H, Stepney R 1982 “Smoking. Psychology and Pharmacology”

© Copyright 2009 All Rights Reserved

Chapter 1: The Black Lung Myth