Chapter 2: Chemicals In Tobacco

There are a number of people who believe that the chemicals within tobacco products are what make smoking so harmful.  Despite a lot of attention being given to the chemicals contained in cigarettes, and many attributing these chemicals as the cause of smoke-induced lung cancer, nobody knows which of the chemicals actually cause cancer.  Scientists have spent hundreds of millions of dollars looking for them, examining approximately 5,000 compounds comprising 95% of smoke by weight.  Individually, some are carcinogenic and some are anti-carcinogenic, yet none accounts for the effects of active smoking.  The total number of compounds is estimated to be 100,000, although some are unstable and exist for microseconds.  

What people forget, or choose to ignore, is that smoke from charcoal contains many of the same components of tobacco smoke, such as carbon monoxide and formaldehyde, as well as carcinogens and so on – a ten pound bag of charcoal produces as much smoke, and chemicals, as 160 packs (3200 cigarettes) of cigarettes.  As of yet, however, I have yet to hear a single cry for the banning of barbeques or indoor fires, or, indeed, people refusing to have their own coal fire or barbeque going for fear of contracting cancer.  Similarly, a tried and tested argument from smokers is that cars emit many larger quantities of smoke and chemicals, all day every day, than cigarettes ever could.  This tends to be shrugged off by non-smokers, yet it is a sound and valid argument.  It is a known fact that cars in North America alone produce 3.7 billion tonnes of toxic substances – each and every year.  But again, like barbeques and coal fires, I have yet to hear of people avoiding driving or walking near cars because of the health risks, nor have I heard any plans to ban driving (chapter 6 looks in more detail at the OSHA limits for air quality, in which we can see conclusively that ETS is well below the limit).  What I am aware of, though, is that there is now major concern of the state of our planet, in part due to the fumes of fires and vehicle pollution – it is amusing that people believe exhaust fumes have the power to destroy their planet, but will do no harm to their lungs, or the rest of their body.  Another overlooked point is that one of the most effective ways of a person killing themselves is carbon monoxide poisoning, by running a hosepipe from the car exhaust into a window, leading to death within minutes.  A lot of people now have carbon monoxide detectors in their homes so they know if there is any CO leaking, as it can cause poisoning or death.  So, then, everyone is more than aware of the dangers of CO, and where it can be found, yet people are more than happy to continue their lives without worry.  Are we really to believe that a small amount of tobacco is to kill us with chemicals, when we are surrounded by the same chemicals each and every day of our lives?  Perhaps the American comedian and social critic Bill Hicks summed it up perfectly “I smoke. If this bothers anyone, I suggest looking at the world in which we live and shutting your mouth”.  

Consider for a moment where else we find chemicals, and toxic chemicals at that.  Tap water is chlorinated and often fluoridated, both of which have been shown to be extremely dangerous and damaging to the body, and there are now massive levels of chemicals  in water due to pollution and even pharmaceutical drugs being flushed down the toilet.  There is actually a video on Youtube explaining the EPA’s troubles with America’s water and says just how badly contaminated it is, I have included a reference for the video for those who want to watch it.[1]Our crops are sprayed with pesticides, which any nutritionist will tell you lowers the body’s immune system and have the capacity to harm you – pesticides are, after all, designed to kill living organisms.  Many household cleaners carry large warnings telling us to avoid contact with the skin or eyes, and to seek medical attention if said product is ingested.  At the same time, though, we are permitted to spray these things onto our surfaces and then make contact with the surface, or eat food from the area.  We consume large quantities of chemicals everyday of our lives, with things we consider ‘necessities’ such as shampoo, conditioner, hand cream, body lotion, moisturiser, sun cream lotion, and make-up.  We are now starting to see a consequence to all these chemicals: make-up has been linked to cancers, especially breast cancer in women, and the water supply in the U.K. is contaminated with large quantities of the female hormone Oestrogen, as well as chemotherapy and Diazepam, a psychiatric drug.[2] The water supply in America also leaves a lot to be desired, as it is fluoridated and in certain parts contains Benzene,[3] and the U.K. watchdog has found Benzene in soft drinks.[4]  Further to all of this is the fact that our oceans are literally turning into plastic as a result of our dependence on the product[5][6] and plastic itself is now linked to a variety of health problems,[7] yet we continue to use this everyday for a variety of purposes and little or nothing is mentioned from the authorities about the possible health effects.  There are plenty more damning products on the market which we perhaps should be worried about: our waters are so contaminated that fish has very high levels of mercury[8] which causes nerve and kidney damage; Teflon has a large, and growing, body of evidence against it highlighting links between Teflon use and cancer, as well as the discovery that there are actually chemicals present on earth since the production of Teflon that did not exist beforehand;[9] aluminium has long been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, and there was some mention years ago about not using cookware made of it, however cookware does continue to be made of aluminium, and it can also be found in a range of other products including deodorants and antiperspirants – none of which carry a health warning of any description.  Should we be asking why not? More than likely, we are all aware of the answer to the question, so perhaps what we should really be doing is asking the question loud enough with the hope that things may change – or at least be explained.  

According to MCS-Global:  

Toxic effects of chemical agents are often not well understood or appreciated by health care providers and the general public. Some chemicals, such as asbestos, vinyl chloride and lead, are known to cause human disease. Other studies suggest that increases in the incidence of some cancers, asthma, and developmental disorders also can be attributed to chemical exposure, particularly in young children. More than 80,000 chemicals have been developed, used, distributed, and discarded into the environment over the past 50 years. The majority of them have not been tested for potential toxic effects in humans or wildlife. Some of these chemicals are commonly in air, water, food, homes, work places, and communities. Whereas the toxicity of one chemical may be incompletely understood, an understanding of the impacts from exposure to mixtures of chemicals is even more deficient. Chemicals may have opposing, additive, or even synergistic effects.”   

MCS-Global use Roundup as an example, it defines the product thusly  

Roundup is a common herbicide used extensively by local governments to control weeds in our streets and parks. Many people use Roundup in their home gardens. The active ingredient in Roundup is called glyphosate but there are numerous different brands of herbicide containing glyphosate that are marketed under different names

and go on to say

Monsanto, the original manufacturers of Roundup, claim that their product “poses no danger to human health when used according to label directions” and that “no special protective clothing or equipment is required when spraying Roundup”. But can these safety claims be trusted?”  

before listing conditions that Roundup has been linked to, including cancer; reproductive problems; birth defects; asthma in children; skin diseases; multiple chemical sensitivity; and neurobehavioural disorders.[10]  Clearly, then, chemicals can and do affect us greatly.  The most important thing, though, is perspective – whilst these things are bad for us and can cause serious problems, little exposure will be fine.  It is for this reason that the people most at risk are those working with such products, as opposed to using them now and again.

Phillip Morris International, one of the largest tobacco companies in the world and manufacturer of the most popular brand of cigarettes in the world, Marlboro, have information of the ingredients and amounts of each ingredient in their cigarettes[11].  While there is, indeed, an extensive list of additives, the first thing to point out is that not all of them are chemicals – for example, water is also added, as is, in certain brands, sugar, and certain oils such as coriander oil.  Secondly, whilst there are chemicals, they make up a minute amount of the cigarette: most chemicals and additives constitute 0.0001% of the cigarette.  Given the size and weight of a cigarette, it is very obvious that 0.0001% amounts to practically nothing.  To give a more accurate example, in the brand Marlboro Red there are 0.035 milligrams of flavourings – both natural and artificial – per cigarette.  Smoking 20 cigarettes a day still only produces 0.7mg, not even a gram.  Furthermore, there is not a single ingredient in tobacco products that are not approved for use, nor is there a single chemical or additive that we do not get from other sources, such as food and water.  Ammonia, for example, is present in fertilisers.   

One of the most popular counter-arguments to this is the idea that the chemicals become more harmful when burnt.  There is, however, not a single shred of evidence for this.  As a matter of fact, animals are routinely used in testing chemicals to see how they affect them and could possibly affect humans.  Rodents, in particular, are very similar in physiology to us, and what is bad for them tends to be bad for us, and vice versa.  However, to this day, no one has managed to induce cancers in animals with tobacco products,[12] despite using tobacco products sold for commercial use i.e. with all the additives and chemicals still there – we will go into this in more detail later.   

What has been shown, though, is that other chemicals are incredibly deadly but are marketed as safe.  The artificial sweetener aspartame is a very good example.  Aspartame, a.k.a NutraSweet, was not approved until 1981, and when it was it was only for use in dry foods.  The FDA refused to approve it because it had caused seizures and brain tumours in laboratory animals, and they continued to refuse its approval until Ronald Reagan became President of the U.S.A. and fired the FDA commissioner who would not approve aspartame.  The Bressler Report compared all available raw data and summary data against the manufacturer’s FDA submission and found missing raw data, errors and discrepancies in what available data there was.  The FDA, which at that time was not under the influence of aspartame sellers, like it is now, investigated Searle and published a scathing 76 page report uncovering the discrepancies, inconsistencies, and evidence of fabrication of records in Searle's lab work. They also performed their own autopsies on the remaining corpses of the rats and found a large number of pathological conditions which were caused by the aspartame but not reported by Searle in their analysis of the results.  The Bressler report was obtained by a health activist, Barbara Mullarkey, using the Freedom of Information Act. The FDA has since passed into the control of persons with economic and political ties to the new owners of the GD Searle Company - the notorious Monsanto Corporation - makers of poisons and political intriguers who are number one on the list of companies being watched by environmentalists worldwide for their campaign of destruction of the environment and disregard for human health in the name of corporate greed. The FDA, prior to turning the report over to Mullarkey, blanked out some of the attached charts and memos, as if they were some sort of state secrets. [13]  

In 1981 Reagan appointed Dr. Arthur Hull Hayes as the FDA commissioner, who then approved aspartame for use in dry goods.[14] In 1983 the FDA approved aspartame to be used in carbonated beverages, and in 1993 approved it for use in other beverages, baked goods and confections.  Finally, in 1996 the FDA removed all restrictions, allowing aspartame to be used in all foods.  We can see the deceit and inner-workings that got aspartame to be approved, and marketed without a warning.  However, it gets worse.   Methanol/wood alcohol is a well known deadly poison – it was in fact the poison that has caused some ‘skid row’ alcoholics to end up blind or dead. Methanol is gradually released in the small intestine when the methyl group of aspartame encounter the enzyme Chymotrypsin.  The absorption of methanol into the body is sped up considerably when free methanol is ingested, and free methanol is created from aspartame when it is heated to over 86°F, or 30°C – this would be quite often given aspartame is now contained in baked goods and other foods that can be heated. 

Methanol then breaks down into formic acid and formaldehyde[15] in the body – formaldehyde is a well known deadly neurotoxin.  An EPA assessment states that methanol “is considered a cumulative poison due to the low rate of excretion once it is absorbed.  In the body, methanol is oxidised to formaldehyde and formic acid; both of these metabolites are toxic”.  The recommended limit of consumption is 7.8mg/day, however a one litre beverage containing aspartame, such as Diet Coke, contains about 56mg of methanol.  People ingesting a lot of products with aspartame can find themselves consuming up to 250mg of methanol a day – 32 times the EPA limit.  The troops of Desert Storm were given large amounts of beverages sweetened with aspartame which had been heated to over 86°F in the Saudi Arabian sun, and many of the soldiers returned home with numerous disorders similar to what has been witnessed in those who have been poisoned by formaldehyde.  It is possible that the methanol in the drinks the soldiers consumed was a contributing factor in these illnesses.  

Whilst it has been pointed out that fruit juices and alcoholic beverages contain small amounts of methanol, it is important to remember than the methanol in natural products never appears alone – in every case, ethanol is present, usually in much higher amounts.  Ethanol is an antidote for methanol toxicity in humans, as such cancelling out the damage that the methanol could cause.  Ethanol is not present in aspartame.  

In February 1994, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released the listing of adverse reactions reported to the Food and Drink Administration (FDA).  Aspartame accounted for more than 75% of all adverse reactions reported to the FDA’s Adverse Reaction Monitoring System (ARMS).  This could be a conservative figure, though, as the FDA admit that fewer than 1% of those who have problems with something they consume ever report it to the FDA.  What this means, then, is that the 10,000 complaints they received could be nearer to a million.  Of course, since aspartame has been approved, there have been numerous studies emerging to show it is safe.  How does a product that was once harmful suddenly become safe?  Well, it doesn’t.  All that changes is the interests of people, and this skews results.  In other words, those with financial interest in aspartame have generated studies assuring people of its safety.  This is no different to smoking studies, except that instead of assuring people it is safe, the studies ‘prove’ smoking is harmful.  When looking at studies, it is essential to see who conducted them and what they stand to gain from the results.  

Some may point out I have contradicted myself by highlighting all the additives in cigarette smoke are approved for consumption, and then following that with evidence of a legal and widely consumed product that can be damaging to the human body.  My point is that, in laboratory testing, tobacco products have never caused cancer or death to an animal, yet there are products on the market that have.  Furthermore, the chemicals present within cigarettes make up such a small amount of the cigarette they barely exist within it.  Even smoking 50 cigarettes a day would not give much exposure to the chemicals, certainly not enough to cause any damage to the body.  

Let’s take a look at some of the chemicals within tobacco that get the most negative attention:  

Carbon monoxide gets a lot of attention with regards to smoking, as anti-smokers are fond of informing others that carbon monoxide kills people and depletes oxygen within the body.  Like oxygen, carbon monoxide combines chemically with the haemoglobin in red blood cells, but unlike oxygen the CO is not released – instead, it stays there until the cell dies and is replaced by a new one.  Each molecule of CO takes up a ‘slot’ where oxygen might otherwise be carried to where it is needed, but one molecule of CO does not destroy the oxygen carrying capacity of the entire cell, as haemoglobin is a large molecule whose purpose is to carry many oxygen molecules.  It is true, though, that massive amounts of CO will displace enough oxygen that suffocation can result.  What must be remembered is there is no danger that this will occur through smoking, as there is not nearly enough carbon monoxide present – as stated before in this chapter, there is far more CO from vehicles than any tobacco product.  Actually, the biggest CO danger comes from home appliances and according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,  

Carbon monoxide is the leading cause of poisoning deaths in the United States.  As many as 5,000 people die of it each year, and another 10,000 are stricken ill enough to miss at least one day of work.  The gas takes its victims silently and insidiously, seeping into their lungs from furnaces, chimneys, heaters, large appliances, automobiles on a nearby roadway or even a neighbouring apartment” [16]  

Formaldehyde is a very well known chemical, and has been mentioned in this chapter already.  The EPA have Formaldehyde down as a potential carcinogen, meaning it is not yet known, or is not conclusively proven, that it causes cancer.  It is, however, a known neurotoxin.  It is without wonder that people worry about it being in tobacco smoke. However, before getting too concerned, let’s look at the big picture.  A cigarette, on average, delivers 20-90 micrograms in mainstream smoke and up to 700 micrograms in side stream smoke.  Worrying?  Consider this: space heaters and gas ranges release 20,000 – 40,000 micrograms, per hour.  Formaldehyde is also used extensively in wood finish, glue, fabric coating, insulation, and many other places.  In mobile homes, concentrations have been measured in excess of 5,000 micrograms per cubic metre.  In ‘non-sick’ buildings, the typical level is 50mg per cubic metre – the same concentration as side stream smoke – 40-50 ug/m^3.  Comparatively, the official safe level is 1,500 ug/m^3.[17]  

Benzene and toluene are perhaps next to formaldehyde in the sense of being seen as the scourge of tobacco additives, and they are mentioned as potential environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) carcinogens.  They are associated with leukaemia, but leukaemia has never been linked to active smoking, let alone second hand smoke.  Benzene, toluene and other aromatics found in the air are primarily found in gasoline, or petrol, but also in copy machines, glue, paint and other such sources.  Typically, concentrations in indoor air is 2-20ug/m^3, the same as in environmental tobacco smoke.  When filling a car with fuel, a person is exposed to concentrations 50-100 times that high.  The official safety level for benzene is 30,000 ug/m^3, and for toluene 375,000 ug/m^3 – over a thousand times that found in ETS. [18]  

Benzo[a]pyrene is an interesting chemical, as in 1996 researchers claimed they had found the exact way in which smoking caused lung cancer – by the Benzo[a]pyrene (BAP) in cigarette smoke damaging the p53 gene.  The article in question will be looked at further into this book in chapter 5 (sub-chapter 3), but firstly let’s look at BAP in a little more detail.  Typically, a room with no smoke has .1-1 ng/m^3, and .3-1.5 ng/m^3 with ETS.  Outside air, with heavy traffic, has 1-3 ng/m^3.  Interestingly, our primary exposure comes from food and water, rather than air.  It is estimated that we take in 1,000 – 5,000 ng/day – tap water (partially, if not largely, due to it being a result of burnt wood and other such things) contains 1-10 ng/L, and one piece of charcoal-broiled meat delivers about 2,500 ng.  BAP is produced by the combustion of vegetation and fossil fuels, and most of our intake comes from burnt food.  Despite this, though, the richest source is leafy green vegetables, which pick it up from the air – the same way the water is contaminated.   

Those in Britain may remember a short while ago the “Smoke is Poison”[19] campaign the Cancer Research society did.  The campaign attempts to show tobacco smoke as poisonous because of the chemicals contained within it, and they highlight six: benzene, arsenic, hydrogen cyanide, formaldehyde, cadmium and polonium. Firstly, it is worth mentioning that the campaign was funded by the Department of Health – again, anti-smoking campaigns and studies get funding, pro-smoking ones do not.  Secondly, the campaign explains how deadly the chemicals are, but forget two important things: firstly, the incredibly small quantity present within tobacco smoke, and secondly, that each and every one is present in foods – they are common chemicals found in fertilisers, soils and other places.  Benzene exists in exhaust fumes, and there are 25 American states whose water supply is contaminated with large quantities of arsenic.  

Finally, we will look at nicotine.  Nicotine is either very misunderstood, or just a victim of propaganda.  Firstly, nicotine is not a carcinogen as some suggest.  Secondly, nicotine is not only in the tobacco plant.  According to Norden, with researchers including members of the National Food Administration of Sweden and Danish Veterinary and Food Administration,  
Nicotine has been detected in potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, and sweet peppers, all food plants and members of the large family Solanaceae. The nicotine levels were extremely low in fresh potatoes, tomatoes and sweet peppers, below 10 μg/kg.  Somewhat higher levels, but still very low amounts, were found in fresh eggplant fruits (up to 100 μg/kg). Processed products contained equivalent or slightly higher levels of nicotine than fresh products (up to 34 μg/kg).” [20]  

As a matter of fact, one study [21] showed that eating a normal portion (4.9 oz) of mashed potatoes produced the same amount of nicotine as 4 hours spent in a smoky bar, and a long lunch with a smoking friend can be equalled by a third of an ounce of eggplant.  Whilst not carcinogenic, nicotine is toxic in the right dose – let us not forget that caffeine, too, is poisonous and a gram of pure caffeine can kill a person.  Furthermore, apples contain cyanide, strawberries contain benzene, and there are over 10,000 food items that we eat everyday that contain naturally occurring poisons.  Whilst nicotine itself is poisonous, the amount found in cigarettes is far from the amount required – or in the concentrated form required – to kill someone.  If it were, a lot of smokers would be dead or in hospital due to nicotine poisoning. [22]  

While on the subject of chemicals, and the criticism that is directed at tobacco based on its chemicals, let’s have a quick look at coffee. Scientists have identified 1,000 different chemicals in a single cup of coffee.  Whilst this alone may be shocking, what is even more so is that only 22 of these 1,000 have ever been tested in animal cancer studies – meaning 978 have not.  Even more noteworthy is the fact that of the 22 tested chemicals, 17 were found to be carcinogenic.  There are 10mg of known carcinogens in one cup of coffee - probably more than all the synthetic pesticide residues one could ingest from eating non-organic food for a year.

Carcinogens are found in many foods--as are offsetting cancer-fighting chemicals--but in small quantities. If we wanted to avoid all carcinogens, we'd have to stop eating altogether. But there are 10 milligrams (mg) of known carcinogens in a single cup of coffee. To put that into perspective, 10 mg is probably more than all the synthetic pesticide residues you could get from eating non-organic food for an entire year. In one cup. [23] [24]

In the 1964 Surgeon General’s report there was a committee of ten scientists, who were picked from 150 scientists and physicians.  All ten of the scientists were heavily weighted towards government agencies and large organisations that were active in public relations, with a low representation from the scientific community.  Interestingly (a polite way of saying suspiciously) there were no statisticians on the committee, despite the fact that statistical expertise was imperative to a proper analysis of the epidemiological studies, which formed a large part of the so-called evidence that was studied (in 1965 K.A. Brownlee, a prominent statistician of the University of Chicago, wrote a damning review on the Report, which we will look at later). [25] Anyway, the committee discovered that, according to their work, the most potent carcinogen present in tobacco smoke in benz[a]pyrene (p27 of the Report).  However, despite what I have mentioned already about BAP, the committee found their own discrepancy – they said that there is four times the amount of BAP in cigar smoke as in cigarette smoke, and ten times the amount of cigarette smoke in pipe smoke.  Yet, oddly, they found both cigar and pipe smoke to be essentially innocent of causing lung cancer, and concluded that pipe smokers live longer than non-smokers – again, this seems to add weight to the theory of the social classes and life expectancy, as whilst cigarette smokers tend to be in the lower social classes, pipe and cigar smokers tend to be in the higher social classes.  We will discuss life expectancy and social classes more in the next chapter, but it is interesting to see how even the most potent carcinogen in tobacco smoke does not present a consistent supporting argument that smoking is harmful.

Should we be worried about chemicals?  The short answer is yes. The long answer is yes, but not all of them.  While the chemicals contained within cigarettes are not good for us, the simple fact remains that the quantities within which they exist are so small they will not be causing any damage to us.  It is a good idea, though, to avoid chemicals in as many products as possible, such as lotions and aerosols, and domestic cleaners given that the chemicals therein enter the body through the skin and enter the bloodstream directly, and that the chemicals within such products are in much higher doses and concentrations than is good.  

[2] Report commissioned by Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI), published in The Telegraph Jan 13 2008
[4] March 1st 2006 “Britain's food safety watchdog says initial tests on 230 soft drinks show benzene levels above the UK limit for water”
[5] “A swirling, floating garbage dump in the North Pacific Ocean twice the size of the United States has been noticed in recent years and is growing at a swift pace”
[6] Best Life Magazine, February 20th 2007
[7] Common Ground March 2007 [8] Ken Cook, President of the Environmental Working Group. Article online at
[12] “Minnesota vs. Tobacco” court case, 1998, experts stated that “although there had been many experiments with animals, trying to induce lung cancer by forcing the animals to inhale tobacco smoke, all the experiments had failed.”
[15] C. Trocho et. al 1998. "Formaldehyde derived from dietary aspartame binds to tissue components in vivo".
[16] Planet Rx
[17] Planet Rx
[18] Planet Rx
[21] Domino et al, Med. Sci. Res, 1993  “Relevance of Nicotine Content of Common Vegetables To The Identification of Passive Tobacco Smokers”,
[22] Source for some of the information on specific chemicals: Huber et al “Smoke and Mirrors”, Regulation: 16:3:44 (1993) Original source: Guerin, Jenkins & Tomkins, “The Chemistry of ETS: Composition Measurement”, Chelsea, Michigan; Lewis Publishers (1992) [23] Primedia, Intertec 2003
[24] Dr. Bruce Ames, UC Berkeley, in Smithsonian Magazine 12/95
[25] Brownlee. K.A. (1965), A Review of "Smoking and Health, J. Amer. Statist. Ass. 60  

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