A smoking revolution – What’s in a cigarette?

CigaretteTravel back in time to the forties and fifties. Smoking was seen by some as a fashion statement. This was before we were clued-up on the abundant chemicals and the massive impact it could have on our health.  As research into cigarettes snow-balled, smoking became less fashionable. Even so, there are still many people around the world who smoke.

This week has seen a drastic change in UK laws regarding smoking.

The UK Government has decided to ban smoking in cars when children are passengers. This change has come after shed-loads of research over the last couple of decades has highlighted health risks associated with smoking that far outweigh the benefits.

But is smoking really as harmful as the Government drums into us on a daily basis?

The statistics seem to speak for themselves; almost 80,000 deaths occurred in the UK in 2011 as a direct result of smoking. What’s more, around 11,000 people die from passive smoking each year (according to Cancer Research UK), and around 9,500 children are admitted to hospital with smoking-related problems from passive inhalation.

So what exactly is in cigarettes that make them so addictive and what produces these toxic effects?

Nicotine–  a plant-derived chemical in cigarettes that is responsible for the addictive nature of smoking. The chemical enters the blood stream by inhalation and absorption through the air sacs in the lungs. It is then carried by the blood into our brains, where it binds to cholinergic receptors.  Usual functioning of these receptors helps to maintain some of our normal bodily processes, but  when nicotine is inhaled  it changes the number of these receptors and also alters their sensitivity to nicotine.  This is the mechanism responsible for smoking addiction- nicotine needs to be used regularly to keep the brain ticking over.

Tar– the gunky stuff in cigarettes that is deposited mainly in the gas exchange region of the lung, and carries all the nasty chemicals that are toxic to our bodies. Apparently there are almost 4,000 of these chemicals in each cigarette smoked, many of which can cause cancer.  Not surprisingly, tar can affect the proper functioning of the lungs. It also ‘clogs’ the cilia that trap bacteria and dirt, so that dangerous substances can enter our lungs.

Carbon monoxide– the chemical in cigarettes that significantly reduces the oxygen-carrying ability of our red blood cells, as it is 200 times more attractive to our blood than oxygen. As the lungs are no longer able to supply our bodies with enough oxygen, we start to have issues with our breathing as we try to take in more oxygen, and also put our heart under immense strain as it tries to supply us our organs and muscles with enough oxygen (amongst many other things!).

Cigarette 2

Arsenic– a carcinogen that affects how the body repairs DNA.

Benzene– a solvent and carcinogen used in petrol

Formaldehyde– a chemical and carcinogen most commonly used to preserve dead bodies.

Polonium – a radioactive substance

Hydrogen cyanide– poisonous gas that damages the heart and blood vessels

Yet despite these major health risks, large numbers of us are still regularly lighting up.

In 2012 approximately 20% of the UK population smoked cigarettes on a regular basis. Astonishing statistics also showed that 10% of school pupils aged 15 were regular smokers. Not only this, but the average number of cigarettes smoked per day was 12.  Despite these figures, many smokers say that they wanted to give up smoking.

Based on all the frankly quite frightening research that hasn’t been brought to our attention, reducing smoking and passive inhalation is something that the Government is beginning to take seriously. Some of the changes that have already been introduced are;

  • Government bans smoking in public buildings and enclosed places in 2007. Having just been old enough to go to clubs and pubs before the smoking ban came into place, I really reaped the benefits when smoking was banned in public places. I was able to enjoy a night out with my friends, without coming home smelling of an ash tray. I wouldn’t have minded so much if I actually smoked myself!
  • Stopping promotion of tobacco productsAdvertising of cigarettes is banned (2003), and supermarkets are permitted to hide tobacco displays (2012).
  • Tobacco taxTax rates on cigarettes are high, apparently with the aim to put people off smoking, and nothing to do with the revenue it makes them!
  • Anti-smoking campaigns– These campaigns aim to get people to quit smoking by making them aware of the health risks, dissuading young people from taking up smoking and trying to educate people on the risks of passive smoking.
  • E-cigarettes– These electronic imitation of cigarettes are currently a massive craze in the UK. In theory these are a great alternate to smoking; they retain all the ‘good parts’ of smoking, without all the added health risks. As these are relatively new they are not well regulated, so more research is needed to evaluate their health impact.

We know for certain that smoking is damaging to the body and has serious health implications. I have provided a (somewhat biased) summary of the health-related impact that smoking can have, from a non-smokers perspective. Another thing is also clear; the Government are taking smoking seriously. They are tackling this issue in a number of vital ways from trying to stop the ‘glamorisation’ of smoking by banning advertisements, reducing the impact on non-smokers, research and regulation into ‘better’ alternatives and in my opinion the best way possible; educating the public on the harmful effects of smoking. Next time you reach for a cigarette just cast a thought to some of the chemicals and toxins that you are putting into your body, and be aware of how this may be affecting yours, or someone else’s health.


2 thoughts on “A smoking revolution – What’s in a cigarette?”

  1. I would like to know why is smoke not made illegal since it is not harmful to smokers themselves only but also passive smokers are affected…can one takes legal actions against smokers who smoke in public places?

  2. Thank you for this shockingly interesting article Sam. The statistics behind cigarettes are truly mind boggling. To answer your question Nkateko, in my opinion cigarettes remain legal as the government is able make a large portion of income from taxing the cigarettes that are sold over the counter. Smoking in public areas in South Africa are strictly prohibited by our laws and legal action can most definitely be taken.

    To turn to a more scientific perspective, cigarettes are almost entirely made up of harmful substances. The combination of nicotine, tar, carbon monoxide, arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde, polonium and hydrogen cyanide work together to cause asthma, neuralgia, insomnia, heart murmur, arthritis and many other negative health effects on the human body.

    Since this article is based on the United Kingdom it is beneficial to view a few statistics. According to http://www.cancerresearchuk.org, 102 000 people died in the United Kingdom in 2009 from smoking-related diseases including cancer. Approximately 86% of lung cancer deaths in the UK are caused by tobacco smoking.

    I feel that one should first fully understand what cigarettes are composed of before blindly causing damage to one’s body.

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