Why do cigarettes have 4000 chemicals in them?
February 21, 2007 5:26 PM   Subscribe

OK, so there are apparently 4000 different chemicals in a cigarette, right? But as I understand it, the only substance that makes it addictive is nicotine. So why don't cigarette companies simply not include all these various chemicals? Does their removal lessen the 'joy' smokers get from smoking a cigarette? What's their purpose?

I'm a non-smoker, so I don't know why anyone would get a kick out of smoking in the first place. But it seems to me that from a list of around 4000 chemicals, a list which the anti-smoking ads tell me include chemicals like formaldehyde, arsenic and cyanide, none of them seem neccessary to the proper functioning of a product that at its simplest only needs nicotine for addiction and paper to hold it in and help burn it.

So why include them in the first place? Are they really neccessary or are they there for some more sinister purpose?
posted by Effigy2000 to Health & Fitness (41 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
If they removed the chemicals, it wouldn't be smoking. No chemicals, no smoke. It's the burning of the paper, the inks in the paper, the various natural (and unnatural) compounds in the leaves, etc, that make all of those chemicals.

Smoking is a ritual, a passtime, an addiction. I can't stand it myself, but I think I might (just barely) understand the appeal. It's a lot of different things to a lot of different people, that's for sure.
posted by bigtex at 5:39 PM on February 21, 2007

Also: if people only wanted the nicotine, they'd chew the gum or wear the patches and NOT SMOKE. And yet they smoke. It's more than just the nicotine that gets (and keeps) people smoking cigarettes.
posted by bigtex at 5:41 PM on February 21, 2007

posted by fvox13 at 5:41 PM on February 21, 2007

Isn't that kind of like asking "It's alcohol that gets you drunk, so why don't people drink pure alcohol?"
posted by languagehat at 5:46 PM on February 21, 2007 [7 favorites]

none of them seem neccessary to the proper functioning of a product that at its simplest only needs nicotine for addiction and paper to hold it in and help burn it.

A cigarette is not just nicotine and paper. The chemicals are probably side effects of the tobacco curing process.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:46 PM on February 21, 2007

And ditto languagehat.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:47 PM on February 21, 2007

So why include them in the first place?

Legacy reasons. Tobacco is a plant, and until relatively recent times, one didn't know of 'active ingredients'. You just smoked the weed, ate the shrooms or chewed the coca leaves, without thinking of these as carriers for THC, psilocin and cocaine respectively.

From a pragmatic perspective, there's no point to doing so. Big Tobacco is, prima facie, suspect, so let's say it was economically and chemically feasible to remove, say, nitrosoamines. Removing just those won't eliminate the health risks and it's unclear there will even be a reduction. How will they test it? Cigarettes are not potential medicine and so there can't be a clinical trial ("you folks over there, smoke a pack of these daily for 20 years and let's see if you don't die so soon!"). Without a trial, Big Tobacco can't advertise them as 'safer' (even if they are), especially in this climate.

Of course, the most obvious reason is that nicotine is FDA-regulated except when delivered in the form of tobacco. And FDA won't approve anything for recreational use or addiction maintenance (opioid substitution is a special historical case). So all the nicotine products (even those with kinetics close to cigarettes) are for smoking cessation and such, not a replacement vice (not that they would work out as such).
posted by daksya at 5:49 PM on February 21, 2007

My dad swears, and is probably right that European and American cigarettes are different in that the American ones don't go out if you set a lit one down. European ones do... So some of the added chemicals make the cigarettes burn faster, and not go out as easy.
posted by magikker at 5:50 PM on February 21, 2007

As magikker says, there's chemicals in there to keep the fag alight. Notice the difference in burning between a tailor and a rolly.
posted by pompomtom at 5:51 PM on February 21, 2007

Best answer: There's a fairly common misconception that if something "includes 4000 chemicals", that must mean that the manufacturers selected and included all those chemicals when designing the product. Usually, this isn't even close to true. It seems to be a basic misunderstanding of what a "chemical" is; people think of chemicals as poisonous substances supplied in leaking drums by the evil white-coated minions of Global Capitalism. In fact, all a chemical is, is a repeatably identifiable form of Stuff.

Most natural (once-living) substances, such as paper and tobacco leaves, are wildly complex arrangements of hundreds to thousands of different chemicals. Set these things to smouldering, and many of those chemicals break down into thousands more. The scary-sounding cyanide, aldehydes, dioxin and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons often quoted as "chemical ingredients in cigarettes" are not, in fact, added by the manufacturers; they're breakdown products of the paper, tobacco and a few additives burning at low temperatures. It's actually the smoker who manufactures these chemicals by lighting the cigarette.

The main chemical that is added to the paper and tobacco during cigarette manufacture is a small amount of potassium nitrate (saltpetre) impregnated into the paper. This is an oxidiser, and acts to keep the cigarette burning even when it's not being drawn on. It's the same stuff you find in the touch-paper you light to make fireworks go, but at lower concentrations. If the manufacturers left this stuff out, they'd probably sell slightly fewer cigarettes, as they would tend to go out if left sitting in the ashtray much as roll-your-owns do.
posted by flabdablet at 6:00 PM on February 21, 2007 [8 favorites]

magikker: that's a difference in construction and design. Some states are now mandating Reduced Ignition Capacity (RIP) or fire-safe cigarettes. They use a special paper.
posted by dilettante at 6:01 PM on February 21, 2007


Cigarettes don't just contain tobacco.... unless you stick to what I call "health food cigarettes"... the pseudo-native American Spirit brands, which advertise as additive-free, pure tobacco.

Big Tobacco has been putting stuff in cigarettes for a hundred years, and for most of it, didn't have to reveal what it was. They are pretty smart, and some of the stuff they stuck in there had the added effect of making the nicotine even MORE addictive. Further, they knew it. It won't take much googling to find a ton of info on tobacco additives and their contribution nicotine addiction.

Actual additives were super-closely held trade secrets, and some was pure and simple, poison. On top of that, you burned it and sucked it into your lungs. I can't believe I did it for 15 years, but I can tell you it was hard to quit!

Smoking is two habits... tobacco use and cigarette use. The pure part of it involving tobacco is chemical and has to do with neurotransmitters and receptors in the brain. The other part has to do with the things surrounding that addiction... the smells, rituals, tastes, etc. Additives contribute to that, too.

Anyone who has ever smoked can tell you that there IS a detectable difference between Marlboro, Winston, Old Gold, Pall Mall, Lucky Strike, Camels, etc. and it's not all in the blend or tobaccco type. It's the goo in the mix.

For a good simple example... go visit a tobacco store and sniff the pipe tobaccos... you'll find apples, pears, all kinds of spices, and god knows what right in there were you can see them and smell them. Ditto cigarettes... it's just smaller.

Here's a list for you.... Additives
posted by FauxScot at 6:10 PM on February 21, 2007

Most of FauxScot's additives look like scents and flavourings to me.

Goddamn those evil corporate bastards for adding spices to make their tobacco-shed floor-sweepings taste better.
posted by flabdablet at 6:14 PM on February 21, 2007

Best answer: Pay attention now, crash course in behaviorism.

Nicotine is extremely reinforcing because of its effects on your neurotransmitters. It's the unconditioned stimulus.

The pleasant smells and flavors of tobacco and all the stuff they soak it in are not reinforcing, or not very much compared to nicotine. They're a conditioned stimulus. So are the appearance of the pack, and the size, shape, color and texture of the cigarette itself.

If you didn't have these conditioned stimuli paired with the nicotine hit, your brain wouldn't know what to do when it craved nicotine. But you do. So you know to go to the store, buy a pack of cigarettes, take them out, light them. Observe a smoker some time. They will take the pack out, remove a cigarette, pass it under their nose, tap it on the table, and light it with a repetitiveness approaching ritual. Every individual smoker tends to repeat these actions the same way every time; that is because the presence of the nicotine has classically conditioned him to do so.

Cigarette companies like this, because of the part where you trade your money for a carton full of the conditioned stimuli. They know that the more elaborate and multifarious the conditioned stimuli, the stronger the entire behavioral chain of actions will become.

Also, but secondarily: it's important to remember that noxious unconditioned stimuli can extinguish behaviors. Go take a handful of straw or leaves. Set them on fire. Inhale the smoke deeply. Unpleasant, isn't it? There's a reason that you don't see people walking around inhaling the smoke from burning things that don't contain nicotine. That reason is that inhaling smoke is an unconditioned extinguishing stimulus - in other words it's noxious to inhale smoke.

Many of the modifications that the drug cigarette companies make: such as acidification of the tobacco; addition of anesthetics such as menthol; and the presence of a particulate filter; serve the purpose of reducing the perceived noxiousness of the smoke inhalation, while facilitating (or at least not impairing) the nicotine delivery.

If you think for a second that these manufacturers do not have this down to an exact science, with legions of Ph.D.'s in chemistry, biology, and behavioral science working on these problems on a daily, rigorous, organized basis for the last several decades, you are seriously deluded and in need of a reality check.
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:25 PM on February 21, 2007 [23 favorites]

What ikkyu2 said. Also worth noting that wine- and cheese-makers have been up to this kind of thing for centuries.
posted by flabdablet at 6:32 PM on February 21, 2007

Also, reading the responses to this thread, I am stunned - just gobsmacked - to see that people are defending the modern American mass-produced cigarette as being a plant product.

People, wake up. Your Marlboro or Lucky Strike cigarette bears as much resemblance to a Cuban cigar as a Big Mac bears resemblance to a grass-fed, free range organic beef tenderloin. Every component of a Marlboro cigarette has been quantified, tested, vetted, and synthesized down to the molecule; hundreds of steps of chemical engineering are performed between the tobacco field and the end product.

The list of additives - straight from tobacco company documents subpoena'd during litigation and delivered years late under heavy protest - doesn't anyone remember this? - includes natural and artificial flavors; some wholesome and pleasant, like licorice, anise, and myrrh; some synthesized chemicals, with frightening names; and some really remarkable and outré things, such as skatole, the main odorant of feces, derived from cow dung.

I thought everybody knew this.
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:37 PM on February 21, 2007

i agree with your point ikkyu2. but in my case, i never bought into the corporate cigarette world ... i pretty much started rolling my own from the beginning. i'd say the ritual you described is generally accurate, but the drug companies are simply enhancing the addictive qualities of the leaf.

parmanparman, you forgot to call me today. now i have to start over.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 6:46 PM on February 21, 2007

ikkyu2 is dead on. I had always heard that a lot of the additives were included to either improve the taste and smell or to speed the delivery of nicotine in some way or another. I'd be more inclined to believe that intentional doctoring of the tobacco and paper is responsible for those chemicals than some accidental byproduct of their manufacturing, as I don't buy for a second that much winds up in there that the manufacturers don't want to wind in there.

And magikker, not only do the European cigarettes not burn as quickly and go out if unattended, I find that they taste "cleaner" somehow, so maybe your father's onto something.

Maybe it should be another question unto itself, but are there stricter regulations for what can be added to cigarettes in other countries?
posted by JaredSeth at 6:51 PM on February 21, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. So to summarise, the answer to my question "Why do they need 4000 chemicals in a cigarette" might best be answered as "They don't, but some are by-products of the cigarette's production process, some chemicals are actually contained within other more prominent chemicals and some are purposefully included to enhance the addictive qualities of nicotine." Yes?
posted by Effigy2000 at 6:52 PM on February 21, 2007

Nice summary, ikkyu2.
posted by JackFlash at 7:00 PM on February 21, 2007

That sounds reasonable to me, Effigy2000. I think it's important to point out that some of the most noxious stuff - the cyanide and carbon monoxide, for instance - aren't things that the cig company is trying to put there. They are combustion by-products; you burn plant matter and you're going to get some amount of them. Likewise, the radioactive polonium-210 in cigarettes is taken up from the environment by the tobacco plant as part of its growing process; I'm sure the cig companies don't care that it's there one way or the other.

Have you ever ruminated on a cigarette pack? Its properties stimulate nearly every part of the human cerebral cortex. It is brightly colored. It has words on it; the Camel pack has an animal and a landscape. Sometimes it is wrapped in a crinkly cellophane wrapper that is quite noisy. It requires fine coordinated movements of both hands to get the cigarette out of it; it is the right size to fit in your hand, and you can bring it up to your nose to smell it. It has a particular texture. It can 'age' in your pocket so you can tell how long you've been carrying it just by feeling it or looking at it. It is really the conditioned stimulus par excellence; once you've been done fiddling with it, there's probably not a neuron in your head that hasn't been involved.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:05 PM on February 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

"They don't. Most are by-products of the cigarette's combustion process, a few are by-products of the production process, and the rest are included to differentiate the product from its competition and keep the smoking experience consistent and compelling for the addict."
posted by flabdablet at 7:05 PM on February 21, 2007

Also worth noting that most of ikkyu2's points about cigarette packaging and additives apply equally strongly to the fizzy sugar-water industry.
posted by flabdablet at 7:07 PM on February 21, 2007

The business about some chemicals being "contained within other more prominent chemicals" also sounds like it arises from a basic misunderstanding of the difference between a chemical and a mixture.
posted by flabdablet at 7:12 PM on February 21, 2007

Also worth noting that most of ikkyu2's points about cigarette packaging and additives apply equally strongly to the fizzy sugar-water industry.

And McDonalds (well, not the "age in your pocket" bit...). The brightly coloured decor, the sounds, the playground, the swivel chairs or slippery seats, even the tactile and topological challenges of removing the sugary-sweet-salty burger from the wrapping - all are attractive to children.

Even better, they all add up to be unattractive to adults - so they get the kids out of there quick-smart, freeing up space for the incoming mob while, at the same time, leaving their own kids wanting more.
posted by Pinback at 7:48 PM on February 21, 2007

There's only one answer above that comes close to answering the question, and it isn't marked best answer. It's flabdablet's.

There's also "4000 chemicals" in an organic carrot. In an organic egg. In an organic beet. In an organic turnip. There's arsenic in organic carrots. There's arsenic in organic beets. Etc., etc., etc.

It may be that tobacco companies add things, extra things, to cigarettes for various reasons. They are accused of doing so. But the vast, vast, vast majority of those 4000 chemicals, many of which are in fact harmful if inhaled, are just byproducts of burning vegetation. They would be present if you lit and inhaled hay, or alfafa, or carrots, or goats.

(This, incidentally, is why the whole "cigarettes/marijuana isn't harmful at all" theory is rubbish. Even if the interesting chemicals (nicotine, THC) have no harmful effects on the human body, inhaling burning plant matter is NOT good for your lungs and will cause lung cancer.)
posted by jellicle at 8:06 PM on February 21, 2007

Jellicle, do you know of epidemiological studies to back up the utterly plausible (and therefore worth testing) idea that smoking anything increases the risk of contracting lung cancer? I'd be interested to find out what evidence exists about the relative risks to life and limb of the following daily habits: (1) smoking a doobie before dinner (2) smoking ten cigarettes throughout the day (3) commuting 20km each way in a car.
posted by flabdablet at 8:23 PM on February 21, 2007

Mmm... inhaled goats.
posted by staggernation at 8:24 PM on February 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Actually, jellicle, smoking marijuana probably doesn't cause lung cancer, and may have a prophylactic effect.

I quit smoking on December 26th, and while I think ikkyu2 is spot on otherwise, I must disagree that inhaling smoke is unpleasant. Patches and gum did me no good. There is no more direct drug delivery system than smoking (none that are practical), and there is no more visceral feeling than inhaling. Cigarettes are too small to present enough smoke to be an unconditioned extinguishing stimulus, at least for someone who smokes.
posted by owhydididoit at 8:36 PM on February 21, 2007

Nicotine is incredibly fast acting drug may have uses delivering drugs to specific places very quick,
posted by hortense at 9:18 PM on February 21, 2007

Not to complicate matters, but I believe that the consumption of cigarettes and marijuana is different enough to make any comparisons rather irrelevant. Cigarettes are not inhaled as deeply, smoked more often, and as others have noted, indeed the cause of this thread, cigarettes contain a variety of superfluous chemicals.

I will also have to disagree slightly with ikkyu2. I believe the multiple sensory perceptions he describes as heightened due to the composition of cigarette packaging is rather a priori. That is I believe the addiction itself creates heightened awareness of the various memories and sensations associated with smoking.

I do not doubt that significant amounts of research are devoted to marketing, but if they have such things down to a science they can sell their results for a very nice profit. I think if one wanted to, shall we say Proust-icize, anything it is possible. If cigarettes were sold in different packages we'd find the various aesthetic characteristics which define them and say some prime mover is attracting us to said characteristics.
posted by geoff. at 9:28 PM on February 21, 2007

Some cigarette manufacturers add ammonia, so you can freebase nicotine, and other additives to finely tune their nicotine delivery products. Action on Smoking and Health has a great page on additives. Be sure to check out the sweet graph of Marlboro's increasing sales and increasing cigarette pH.
posted by chudder at 9:49 PM on February 21, 2007

Patches and gum did me no good. There is no more direct drug delivery system than smoking (none that are practical), and there is no more visceral feeling than inhaling.

Getting a little off-topic here, but when I quit in 2000 (although I've since started up in a much more occasional, light-duty way), it was with the help of Nicorette Inhalers. That's one superbly efficient nicotine delivery system, and the inhalation is part of the psychological effectiveness of them as a cessation aid. They rock (and predictably, are unavailable in Korea for some reason). If I could get them here, I'd quit again, I think.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:06 PM on February 21, 2007

FWIW, I believe that Effigy's question was probably prompted by a typical Aussie scare campaign that is showing on TV right now (for some reason they just *love* these very graphic shock ads, whether the target is safe driving, not taking party drugs, whatever).

The ad shows a girl smoking a cigarette & as the voice-over grimly lists some of the nastier-sounding chemicals (arsenic, formaldehyde etc), the cigarette becomes a kinda test-tube shaped crack-pipe, with bubbling pools of foul chemicals vapourising & flowing into her mouth.

The "4000 chemicals" bit always strikes me as transparently cynical. As jellicle points out, an organic carrot probably also has 4000 chemicals. Not saying smoking is healthy, but going "oooh! aaah! nasty-wasty chemicals! so many of them!" is a pretty pisspoor way of making a point. They contain arsenic? So what, unless it is a fatal dose? Pretty much anything naturally existing is a poison if taken in the the wrong quantity, even substances that are beneficial in other doses.

Still, it's a way of propagandising, and probably a reasonably effective one, at least for totally ignorant people whose gut reaction is a kneejerk "chemical = nasty".

(um, people whose knees are in their guts, or vice-versa, that is)
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:08 PM on February 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

My dad swears, and is probably right that European and American cigarettes are different in that the American ones don't go out if you set a lit one down. European ones do... So some of the added chemicals make the cigarettes burn faster, and not go out as easy.

This is mostly true. There are American cigarettes that are made the European way (Nat Shermans come to mind), and are fantastic, but they're hard to find and cost significantly more.

Additionally, they burn so comparatively slowly that they're not really good for a "smoke break". They seem to be made to actually enjoy the cigarette, rather than just to feed an addiction.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 10:24 PM on February 21, 2007

Flabdablet: there are epidemiological studies showing that non-smoking firefighters have a much higher rate of lung cancer than the general population. Firefighters are people whose lungs are exposed to smoke.

owhydididoit: Since inhaling smoke is so wonderful, entirely apart from the presence of habit forming chemicals such as nicotine and THC, what other forms of smoke inhalation do you practice?

geoff: Your position is well stated; it is the position of science before the decades of research performed by Pavlov. Rather than reinvent the wheel by performing experiments designed to test your statements, why not read about them; those experiments were performed years ago.
posted by ikkyu2 at 3:13 AM on February 22, 2007

The smoke that firefighters are exposed to contains breakdown products of burning wood, fabrics, plastics and surface coatings, and is generated at high temperatures. It doesn't surprise me at all to hear that firefighting is bad for lungs.

On the other hand, I would also not be surprised to find that combustion temperature and fuel composition both make a significant difference to what's actually in the smoke, so I would still like to see some epidemiology specifically relating to joints vs. ciggies.

Have the results of the Ford and Tashkin studies linked to by owhydididoit been checked by others?
posted by flabdablet at 3:51 AM on February 22, 2007

Flabdablet: There's no good epidemiology suggesting that marijuana, tobacco cigar or tobacco pipe smoking causes lung cancer, at least not a few years ago when I looked. (except for folks who smoked more than 2 full-sized cigars a day *and* inhaled; they had a slightly elevated risk of lung cancer.)

These studies, taken together with the utterly convincing, thoroughly replicated studies showing that cigarettes confer a greatly increased risk for lung cancer, suggest that the cigarettes are different in some way that causes them to be a powerful provocant for lung cancer. Some epidemiologists point to the heavy chemical processing they undergo as the distinguishing factor.

The marijuana studies weren't particularly good ones as far as design, recruitment, validation and size go, by the way. There's no funding for such studies, and because cannabis consumption is illegal, no attempt was made to standardize or control for the doses or sources of the cannabis or the method of consuming it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:48 AM on February 22, 2007

ikkyu2: These studies, taken together with the utterly convincing, thoroughly replicated studies showing that cigarettes confer a greatly increased risk for lung cancer, suggest that the cigarettes are different in some way that causes them to be a powerful provocant for lung cancer.

Isn't the most parsimonious explanation the gross amount of smoke inhaled? Assume a direct linear correlation between tobacco amount and smoke inhaled. 20 pack years of cigarettes, generally taken as the lower end of the range where increased lung cancer risk is detectable, works out to 20 x 365 x 20 = 146,000 cigarettes = ~150,000 grams of tobacco. How many people consume that much tobacco via smoke of pipes and cigars?

flabdablet: Have the results of the Ford and Tashkin studies linked to by owhydididoit been checked by others?

They have been published in an AACR journal.

It's also worth looking at a comparison of cannabis and tobacco smoke.
posted by daksya at 10:52 AM on February 22, 2007

Parsimony is a whore.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:46 PM on February 22, 2007

Care to unpack that parsimonious comment? :-)
posted by flabdablet at 7:36 PM on February 22, 2007

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