Does Cigarette Smoke Contain Free Radicals?

Continuing with my new theme of responding to relevant questions in the blog, here is an email I received today:

I have recently a heard an “expert” on ageing (on a slovenian tv show, I’m from Slovenia) say that one puff of smoke contains roughly one BILLION free radicals, which supposedly explains why smokers allegedly age faster than non-smokers. He also showed photos of identical twins (one smoker and the other not): of course the smoker looked much older than the non-smoker twin. I was not pursuaded by the “evidence”; if one twin smokes and the other does not then there are certainly other environmental factors that differ between the two. I would be really grateful if you could tell me what real figures on free radicals in one cigarette are. Thank you!

 

Actually, I have no idea. I’ve never given it any thought – I accept that as we get older, we look older. I have seen young people look older than their years and old people look younger than their years. I have also seen photos of twins, one a smoker and the other a non-smoker; sometimes they look much the same, other times one looks older – but almost without exception, the smoker is the one with brighter, more alert eyes. Given that we know there are components of cigarette smoke (not just nicotine) that facilitate our cognitive function, if it came down to deciding whether that is more or less preferable than having wrinkles on my skin, I would be curious to know who would prefer to sacrifice the former. After all, we should all be hopeful enough to live long enough to have earned those wrinkles!

As a case in point of the above, there’s a rather Internet-famous comparison between a healthy living non-smoker, and a smoking, “eat what you want” chef, both are pictured below and both are in their 50s. I won’t tell you which is which (hint: the smoker is the one that doesn’t look like media smokers).

gillian-mckeith-nigella-lawson

The list of famous smokers includes people like Johnny Depp, Jennifer Aniston, (formerly) Brad Pitt, Arnold Schwarzenegger (cigars, but free radicals are free radicals), Uma Thurman, Kate Moss, Kate Hudson and… frankly, too many to mention, but the point is, you wouldn’t look at any of them and think they look bad for their age. Actually other people have done the hard work for me and compiled their own lists of smokers (we’re meant to be appalled and shocked that these rich, successful people smoke):

10 Celebrity Smokers Who Will Probably Surprise You

Celebrity Smokers. Stars who can’t stop smoking (I’m going to go out on a limb and say that some or most of them don’t want to stop, let alone “can’t”)

My advice to someone concerned about free radicals would be to observe their diet or consume more antioxidants.

When it comes to an accurate number of how many are in smoke, I’d be surprised if one exists. The Slovenian show said a billion per puff (you’d expect a pack a day smoker to look like a prune after a week), but the “experts” on this topic can’t even agree amongst themselves.

quitsmoking.about.com avoided specifics, opting instead to say “Inhaled toxins in cigarette smoke create an abundance of free radicals.”

Easy Health Options thinks Slovenia is low-balling: “Swallow this fact: Every puff of a cigarette contains… 100 trillion free radical molecules.” (I’m thinking he’s playing fast and loose with the word “fact” there.)

A Healthier You For Life goes one better though: “here’s something I’ll bet you haven’t heard.  Just 1 puff causes up to 1 quadrillion free radicals.”

I wonder if anyone is claiming a zillion. In any case, the actual studies on free radicals in smoke that I have seen do not mention figures for how many are produced, and I would be wary of anyone claiming to be an “expert” on the real number.

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