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What Does Nicotine Do to Your Body?

Nicotine, the active and addictive ingredient of tobacco, is a mild central nervous system stimulant and a stronger cardiovascular system stimulant. It constricts blood vessels, increasing the blood pressure and stimulating the heart, and raises the blood fat levels. In its liquid form, nicotine is a powerful poison—the injection of even one drop would be deadly. It is the nicotine, not the smoke, that causes people to continue to smoke cigarettes, but it is the cigarette smoke that causes many of the problems.

Cigarette smoke is a combination of lethal gases—carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, and nitrogen and sulfur oxides—and tars, which contain an estimated 4,000 chemicals. Some of these chemical agents are introduced by current tobacco manufacturing processes. Although tobacco has been smoked for centuries, only recently has it moved from the naturally grown and dried process. It appears that in the last century the negative effects of smoking have skyrocketed. My belief, which is shared by many authorities, is that much of the added risk is produced by the chemical treatment and unnatural processing of tobacco. The little research that has been done on this (it is not sponsored by the industry) suggests that natural tobacco poses much less cancer risk, as well as cardiovascular disease risk, though this is predominately from the nicotine, which is not changed by processing.

Dangers in modern tobacco products include pesticides used during growth and chemicals added to the tobacco to make it burn better or taste different. Chemicals added to the leaves and papers to enhance burning are among the major causes of fire deaths in this country, as cigarettes continue to burn after they have been put down. The forced burning also makes people smoke more of each cigarette in order to complete it. Sugar curing and rapid flue drying are also associated with increased toxicity of cigarettes. Kerosene heat drying contaminates the tobacco with another toxic hydrocarbon. Using a natural tobacco, such as some imported from France or Germany and a few U.S.-made cigarettes (possibly Shermans and More), may reduce the smoking risk. If a cigarette does not go out when left alone, it has been chemically treated.



Other toxic contaminants in cigarettes include cadmium (which affects the kidneys, arteries, and blood pressure), lead, arsenic, cyanide, and nickel. Dioxin, the most toxic pesticide chemical known to date, has been found in cigarettes. Acetonitrile, another pesticide, is also found in tobacco. The nitrogen gases from cigarettes generate carcinogenic nitrosamines in the body tissues. The tars in smoke contain polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), carcinogenic materials that bind with cellular DNA to cause damage. Antioxidant therapy, particularly with vitamin C, is protective against both PAH and nitrosamines, and extra C also blocks the irritating effects of smoke. Smoking itself reduces vitamin C absorption; blood levels of ascorbic acid average about 30–40 percent lower in smokers than in nonsmokers.

Radioactive materials are also found in cigarette smoke; polonium is the most common. Some authorities believe that cigarettes are our greatest source of radiation. A smoker of one and a half packs per day may be exposed to radiation equal to 300 chest x-rays a year. Radiation is a strong aging factor. Acetaldehyde, a chemical released during smoking, causes aging, especially of the skin, as it affects the cross-linking bonds that hold our tissues together.

by: Elson M. Haas, M.D.




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Updated March 2019