There is this theory (and if it wasn't, it is now) that, beside nicotine, there are three main factors that attribute to the danger of tobacco smoke, be it primary or secondary...

  1. Pesticides and herbicides used when growing the tobacco plants are still contained in the tobacco when you light up your cigarettes, cigars or whatever.
  2. Most commercial tobacco products contain sugar. Usually added by mixing the tobacco with molasses (don't ask me for details). Cigarettes contain about 5% sugar, cigars 20%, pipe tobacco has the lead with about 40% molasse/sugar. (numbers from a report by Medical World News (1973)).
  3. Most commercial tobacco products contain perfumes.

A lot of the harm done by tobacco smoke can probably be attributed to those additives. A German magazine (Öko-Test) did a test of tobacco products in the 90's and found scary amounts of herbicides and pesticides. Back in 1972, the BBC reported that the sugar is one of the main reasons for lung cancer, they based this statement on statistics showing that lung cancer is less frequent in areas where tobacco products contain less sugar. Quote:

The late Dr. Richard D. Passey of London's Chester Beatty Research Institute had spent twenty years investigating smoking and cancer. 'In Russia, China, Formosa, and other countries where cigarettes are made of air-dried tobacco (three months in a barn, allowing fermentation of sugars, and thus resulting in no sugar content) - close to the kind the American Indian used before the invention of sugar sauces (usually with many additives) - they are unable to find any correlation at all between smoking and lung cancer.' (Sugar Blues, 1975)

I am not an expert in any of the areas concerned, I'm merely a nicotine addict, so please take this info with a grain of salt.

Nicotine, in and of itself, is not actually harmful at all, other than that it is addictive. You could continue to stay on nicotine patches for your entire life, and not get cancer, or lung disease or anything else.
The problem is that a cigarette also has:

Arsenic used in rat poison
Acetic Acid hair dye and photo developer
Acetone main ingredient in paint and fingernail polish remover
Ammonia a typical household cleaner
Benzene rubber cement
Cadmium found in batteries and artists' oil paint
Carbon Monoxide poison
Formaldehyde used to embalm dead bodies
Hydrazine used in jet and rocket fuels
Hydrogen Cyanide poison in gas chambers
Napthalenes used in explosives, moth balls, and paint pigments
Nickel used in the process of electroplating
Phenol used in disinfectants and plastics
Polonium radiation dosage, equal to 300 chest X-rays in one year
Toluene embalmer's glue

There's an even longer list at The advantages of hand-rolled cigarettes.

While nicotine may not be as carcinogenic as other chemicals in cigarettes, I would not call it "not harmful at all."

First of all, nicotine is a fairly powerful poison. One to two drops of pure nicotine under the tongue can kill a healthy adult. Nicotine derivatives are also toxic to insects, and are often used as pesticides (Which is most likely what the tobacco plant uses them for).

Secondly, a recent study has shown a link between long term nicotine therapy (gum or patch) and lung cancer. It seems that under acidic conditions in the body, nicotine can turn into NNK, a chemical known to cause lung cancer. While it should not disuade anyone from using nicotine replacement to stop smoking, it adds another reason to kick the habit.

Information about the link between nicotine and cancer from:

Interesting view of nicotine, I don't believe I've heard two consistent quotes about the drug. I think the politics of smoking twisted the perception of anything cigarette related to be evil so less people smoke, almost connotating smoking as sin.

I've heard the views of how horrible nicotine is as a drug but also that it isn't a bad drug. During a global health seminar one of the cigarette research leaders here at the University of Iowa gave a presentation on the issue of the changes on tobacco marketing. Evidently the major advertisement area by contemporary cigarette producers is aimed at women. The smokings per capita of lesser global economic influencing countries have seen an almost exponential rate of growth in female consumers. It was very interesting to see how a hundred or so years ago a cigarette ad never depicted a woman actually inhaling, only burning off to the side. Societal view of women smokers was slightly taboo or unbecoming of a lady. Now we see sexy ads with women at a party sucking down menthols and getting a piece of the action as if to say smoking is liberation. This could be describes as the “You go girl!” attitude of advertising.

During his presentation we talked about why smoking is so harmful. From all the research he's seen nicotine is a very predictable and safe drug under regulation. I can not speak of the dangers of consuming high or pure quantities of nicotine but he did mention that taken in high amounts is not as health damaging as smoking. For comparison Aspirin is a harmful drug if indulged in an orgy fashion (completely irrelevant, but I wanted to say orgy). He did conclude that the danger of smoking is the burning process. Nicotine has a few dastardly effects on the functions of the heart and heart diseases such as hypertension which ensues after chronic use. He also mentioned that Nicotine is cheap, like $20 for a huge beaker and his gesture for a huge beaker was quite large my friend.

We also inquired about the additives as the major cancer of smoking. One specific example was the difference between India cigarettes and the American brand Marlboro. A student from India brought up how weak in content Indian cigarettes are and how Marlboro uses additives such as an ammonium hydride as a catalyst to quicken the absorption of nicotine. She initially estimated a Marlboro is the equivalent of three Indian cigaretts but the number jumped to the high of six or seven. To me this indicated she knew nothing of the sort. The good doctor, on the other hand, did confer about the differences in product composition and that India smokes less per capita, but came back with the same answer. Even a tobacco leaf pure of any externalities such as additives, sugar, or pesticides is still just as dangerous when burned. I wonder how different forms of consumption such as eating would compare to the health effects of smoking. Then it's a short step to the brownie vs. bong debate of weed. It was kind of odd how the lady placed pride on the smoking habits and practices of Indian people. I guess I view smoking as smoking and not a cultural area of pride.

This write up is pretty general because I wanted to get it down before parsimonious finals week starts. I'll get some of the more specifics down later like the name of the presenter and possibly some of the chemical reactions that take place under burning of a bio-organic substance that produces hydrocarbons.

So it's the process of smoking that is the most detrimental aspect of cigaretts. Another user asked about snuff and other chewing tobaccos. I don't know much about these but chewing tobaccos do deposit particles of fiberglass in the mouth. Hopefully you didn't do this as a kid, but I was at an unfamiliar playground for a wedding and I think someone warned me. I went ahead anyway and jumped on one of the support poles of a swingset that was made of fiberglass and slid down. I'm still scared of fiberglass. Back to tobacco, the fiberglass does cause some of the related oral problems with chewing. The chemicals such as Nicotine might also contribute. Science doesn't prove that tobacco directly causes cancer. It can only rule out what doesn't cause cancer and tobacco isn't anywhere near getting exculpated.

Another reason smoking is more harmfull, there isn't a positive replaceable element that can be consumed by the inhalation of a burning product. The best way to decrease the number of smokers is sadly the defacement of the smoking image projected through society. It's also hard to play or listen to really good live jazz like Charles Mingus and not smoke, unless it's performed in a smoking prohibited environment.

I don't endorse the use of any product for the inhalation of smoke from embers.

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