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Tobacco Chemicals

January 4, 2011

I never smoked. My parents smoked when I was a child, but they quit after a friend died of a smoking-related illness. At the same time, evidence started to mount as to the harmful effects of smoking. The first Surgeon General's report on smoking and health appeared a few years later, on January 11, 1964. My Uncle Walt, whom I mentioned in a previous article (Random Pi, June 30, 2008), used to roll his own cigarettes. My maternal grandfather, who needed full use of his hands since he was a machinist, didn't smoke cigarettes, but used snuff instead.

Today's computer people seem to prefer a caffeine fix over smoking, either from coffee or soft drinks. For a summary of the caffeine charge in your coffee cup, see the table in my previous article (Coffee Rings, December 10, 2010). In the early days of computing, even before smoke-free offices, computer people didn't smoke because it would interfere with the magnetic media that were everywhere. A particle of smoke is a few micrometers in size, not quite a boulder to the clunky read/write heads in those days, but still about the same dimension as a magnetic domain in magnetic tape.

With the new year just upon us, there are many who have resolved to quit smoking. It's easier to do that now, since there are aids such as nicotine patches and nicotine gum. One scientist I know tried to quit smoking before the advent of these cessation aids, and he wasn't successful. Fifteen years later, another scientist I know successfully used them to quit.

As an added incentive to the scientifically trained who want to quit, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has collected a list of twenty-eight carcinogenic chemicals found in tobacco products, as shown in the table. [1] Wikipedia has a much longer list of carcinogens found in cigarette smoke,[2-3] but the list below covers smokeless products as well.

Carcinogenic Agents in Tobacco
ChemicalType of TobaccoConcentration (ng/g)
Benzo[a]pyreneNT, S> 0.1 - 90.0
α-Angelica LactoneNTpresent
β-Angelica LactoneNTpresent
Ethyl CarbamateCT310 - 375
FormaldehydeNT, S1,600 - 7,400
AcetaldehydeNT, S1,400 - 27,400
CrotonaldehydeS200 - 2,400
NitrosodimethylamineCT, SND - 270
NitrosopyrrolidineCT, SND - 760
NitrosopiperidineCT, SND - 110
NitrosomorpholineCT, SND - 690
NitrosodiethanolamineCT, S40 - 6,800
NitrososarcosineSND - 2,500
3-(Methylnitrosamino)- propionic acidCT, S200 - 65,700
4-(Methylnitrosamino)- butyric acidCT, SND - 9,100
Nitrosoazetadine-2-carboxylic acidCT4 - 140
N'-NitrosonornicotineCT, S400 - 147,000
4-(Methylnitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanoneCT, SND - 18,000
N'-NitrosoanabasineSM, Spresent - 560
HydrazineSM14 - 51
ArsenicNT500 - 900
NickelSM, S180 - 2,700
CadmiumSM700 - 790
Polonium-210NT, S0.16 - 1.22(pCi/g)

NT = natural tobacco; SM = smoking tobacco; S = snuff; CT = chewing tobacco; ND = not detected.

Radioactive elements, nickel, arsenic and cadmium in my tobacco? Every plant will incorporate inorganic minerals from its soil, so that's no surprise. What's important is when these are delivered directly to your lungs. I'm afraid of any organic chemical with a name longer than sixteen characters, and I don't smoke.

I have three anecdotes relating to tobacco. The tobacco mosaic virus was the first virus to be discovered. The virus was crystallized by Wendell Meredith Stanley in 1935, and Stanley received a share of the 1946 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this work. His fellow laureates, James Sumner and John Northrop were honored for the crystallization of enzymes.

The popular period piece, Mad Men, includes a lot of cigarette smoking. You couldn't do an accurate portrayal of the 1960s without it. All the actors smoke herbal cigarettes, since they can't smoke tobacco cigarettes in their workplace. Yes, acting is really considered to be work.

When I was in high school, I read a letter to the health column in the local newspaper in which a student inquired about the validity of something a science teacher had told his class. As the student related it, the teacher had argued that it wasn't the tobacco in cigarettes that was bad, it was the cigarette paper. I immediately realized that his teacher was making a point about the scientific method that the student misunderstood. If your experiments find that cigarettes are bad, don't forget that the paper is part of the cigarette, too. Years later, when dioxin (a.k.a., Agent Orange) was discovered in bleached paper,[4] I realized that the teacher's point was well taken.

Van Gogh Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat

Smoking will make your ears fall off! Well, maybe not. Van Gogh Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat. (Vincent van Gogh, Selbstporträt mit abgeschnittenem Ohr, 1889).


  1. Smoking and Tobacco Control Monograph No. 2, Smokeless Tobacco or Health: An International Perspective; PDF File with data, Chapter Three, Table I, page 99.
  2. List of cigarette smoke carcinogens (Wikipedia).
  3. Report on Carcinogens, Eleventh Edition; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Toxicology Program.
  4. Illinois Department of Public Health, Fact Sheet - Dioxins.

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