Tobacco 101

Understand why cigarettes and other tobacco products are addictive and harmful to your health.

What is nicotine?

Nicotine is an addictive, fast-acting drug found in cigarettes. It affects your heart rate, blood pressure, brain chemistry, and mood. When you stop smoking, you experience cravings because your body is used to having a certain amount of nicotine each day.

Is nicotine really that addictive?

Yes. When nicotine enters the body, it triggers the release of dopamine, a hormone that causes feelings of pleasure. The brain remembers how good you felt and begins to crave nicotine to get that good feeling back. Feeding your brain’s craving for nicotine makes it want to have more. Withdrawal symptoms usually appear within 2–3 hours after your last cigarette because the desired dopamine levels have decreased.

If you smoke every day, especially if you smoke 10 or more cigarettes a day, you are likely addicted to nicotine. If you have a hard time going for long periods without smoking, or if you have noticed strong withdrawal reactions when you have tried to quit before, you may be highly addicted. Are you addicted to nicotine? Take the nicotine addiction quiz.

What happens when I light up?

Each time you inhale cigarette smoke, nicotine rushes to the brain within 10 seconds. If you take just 10 puffs per cigarette, and smoke a pack per day, you are receiving over 200 hits of nicotine each day. If you have smoked for 25 years, then you have taken almost 2 million hits of nicotine during your lifetime.

Every time you light up a cigarette, you release 7,000 known chemicals into the air and into your body. At least 69 of these chemicals cause cancer. “Natural” and “no additive” cigarettes are no safer than other cigarettes. They still release harmful chemicals. Anyone around you is also breathing in these harmful chemicals, which can affect their health.

Other Tobacco Products

Do you occasionally smoke a cigar or pipe, or chew tobacco in addition to smoking cigarettes? As it turns out, these tobacco products are just as harmful to your body as cigarettes. Cigars, pipes, and roll-your-own tobacco are not healthy alternatives to cigarettes and may lead to many of the same diseases as cigarettes.

  • Cigars: Even if you do not inhale, you can still be at risk for mouth and throat cancers, among others. Older adults who smoke cigars are at a greater risk for heart disease than nonsmokers. Cigars may even release more toxic secondhand smoke to those around you than cigarettes do.
  • Roll-your-own tobacco: This kind of tobacco is not a safe alternative to cigarette smoking. Roll-your-own tobacco is not “organic.” It has the same toxins as cigarettes and can cause the same cancers and other health problems as cigarettes.
  • PipesPipe smoking and cigar smoking have similar levels of risk. Pipe smoking can increase your risks for stroke, heart disease, and cancer of the lung and mouth.
  • Smokeless tobacco: Smokeless tobacco contains 28 known carcinogens and high levels of salt, which contributes to high blood pressure. If you use smokeless products, you are putting yourself at risk for oral health problems, cancer, and heart diseases. Smokeless tobacco is also addicting. Tobacco products are not safe just because they do not involve smoke. 

All tobacco is dangerous. The best way to protect yourself and your loved ones from the harms related to tobacco products is to quit altogether.

What about electronic cigarettes?

Electronic cigarettes (commonly called e-cigarettes, e-cigs, or vapes) are battery-powered devices that work by heating a liquid into an aerosol that the user inhales and exhales. The e-cigarette liquid typically contains nicotine, propylene glycol, glycerin, flavorings, and other chemicals. Nicotine is the addictive drug found in regular cigarettes and other tobacco products. Research shows that e-cigarette aerosol often contains substances that can be harmful, including flavoring chemicals (like diacetyl, which is linked to lung disease), metals (like lead), and other cancer-causing chemicals.

Companies that make or sell e-cigarettes must follow certain Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations. For example, only people age 18 and over are allowed to buy e-cigarettes. Researchers are working hard to gather more information about e-cigarettes and how they are used. This information may lead to additional regulations and could be helpful for informing the public about what's in e-cigarettes and the potential health risks of using them.

E-cigarettes are not approved by the FDA as a quit smoking aid. So far, the research shows there is limited evidence that e-cigarettes are effective for helping smokers quit. There are other proven, safe, and effective methods for quitting smoking. Explore your options and find a quit method that's right for you