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7 Chemicals in Cigarettes That Cause Cancer

If you have ever wondered which substances in cigarettes are cancerogenic, read our list of the 7 Chemicals in Cigarettes That Cause Cancer where you will find chemicals such as benzene, aldehyde and other toxic substances. Scientific evidence which prove that smoking cigarettes causes different types of cancer has been accumulating over the years.

Around 1 billion people in the world smoke and almost half of them die as a direct result of smoking. Nicotine addiction causes many diseases, including different types of cancer, among which lung cancer is the most prevalent. According to American Cancer Society, smoking is responsible for 80.2 percents of deaths from lung cancer. It is also one of the leading causes of larynx, throat, esophagus and bladder cancer. In USA about 480,000 people die each year from smoking-related illnesses, around 150.000 from lung cancer alone, which means that smoking kills more Americans than alcohol, car accidents, suicide, AIDS, homicide, and illegal drugs combined.

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These bleak figures are hardly a secret. Almost everyone knows that smoking causes cancer, but as any smoker would tell you quitting isn’t so easy. In the USA 70 percent of nicotine addicts would like to quit smoking, but the success rate among those who try to quit without any help is only 4 to 7 percent. The success rate rises among smokers who rely on some sort of assistance in fighting their addiction. Besides medicament assistance, different sorts of counseling as well as joining self-help group such as Nicotine Anonymous can be helpful.

So why is it so hard to stop smoking? On one side, tobacco companies are spending a lot of money to convince people to buy their product. You can check our list of 11 top selling cigarettes in the World and see it for yourself. On the other side, nicotine is a substance which is highly addictive. GM Heyman presents data that show that it is easier to stop using cocaine then quitting smoking. It isn’t entirely clear how nicotine creates addiction and the question still raises a lot of debate among scientists. However, it is known that nicotine increases production of two chemicals in the brain – acetylcholine and dopamine. Acetylcholine is believed to play a role in learning and memory, which is why smokers often say that lighting cigarette helps them to concentrate. On the other side, dopamine is associated with brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Pleasurable experiences trigger the release of dopamine which is why our brain is making us repeat the activities that bring pleasure.

When a person stops using nicotine, withdrawal symptoms appear. These symptoms may range from mild to severe and they include physical symptoms such as headache, constipation, tremor as well as psychological – altered mood, nervousness, anxiety even depression. The brain, which got used to nicotine, or better say dopamine, suddenly feels that it lacks something – ex smokers often report that during their first days of smoke-free life they had overwhelming sense of lose and emptiness. While no one doubts that it is hard to quit, there are many reasons why smokers should never stop trying to get rid of the addiction.

Tobacco smoke contains over 5,300 compounds, among which more than 70 are carcinogenic. We made the list of 7 Chemicals in Cigarettes that Cause Cancer using the monograph of International Agency for Research on Cancer, published in 2012, as well as highly cited article Tobacco Smoke Carcinogens and Lung Cancer written by Stephen S. Hecht and published in 1999. We used these two sources to identify carcinogens in cigarettes, and we have chosen to present you these seven chemicals using two criteria – its concentration per cigarette and its carcinogenic potential.

7. Acetaldehyde

Acetaldehyde’s concentration per cigarette can range from 980µg to 1.37 mg.

While cigarettes contain high levels of acetaldehyde, it’s carcinogenic potential isn’t so high. However, this chemical, along with nicotine, is responsible for the development of addiction, since it appears that the combination of acetaldehyde and nicotine is more addictive than nicotine alone. Acetaldehyde isn’t actually used as an additive in cigarettes but is produced when other compounds such as sugar and glycerol burn.


6. 2-Naphthylamine

2-Naphthylamine’s concentration per cigarette can reach 35ng.

2-Naphthylamine belongs to a group of aromatic amines which contains 12 chemicals that are part of cigarettes. Aromatic amines can be found in dyes, pesticides, and in grilled meats and fish. In the past, 2-Naphthylamine was used in rubber industry. However, because of its carcinogenicity, 2-Naphthylamine hasn’t been commercial produced since 1970’s and today it can be found only in laboratories.


5. 4-(Methylnitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanone (NNK)

NNK’s concentration per cigarette can range from 80 to 770ng

NNK takes fifth place on our list of 7 Chemicals in Cigarettes That Cause Cancer. It belongs to a group of N-Nitrosamines, which contains 8 carcinogens in cigarettes. These chemicals, made of nitrogen and oxygen, are found in products made of latex, such as balloons, but also in food, which is why U.S. government set limits on the amount of nitrites used in meat products. According to Stephen S. Hecht, the total dose of NNK experienced by a smoker in a lifetime of smoking is remarkably close to the lowest total dose shown to induce lung tumors in rats.

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4. 1,3-butadiene

1,3-butadiene’s concentration per cigarette can range from 20 to 40μg

1,3-butadiene belongs to a group of Volatile hydrocarbons. It is used in rubber industry, and it can be also found in exhaust gas from vehicles. Numerous studies have confirmed that 1,3-butadiene causes cancer on multiple organs in mice. In addition, there are indications that women are more sensitive to possible carcinogenic effects of butadiene then men.


3. Benzo[a]pyrene (BaP)

Benzo[a]pyrene’s concentration per cigarette can range from 20 to 40ng.

Benzo[a]pyrene (BaP) is one of the mostly studied chemicals found in cigarettes and it has been proven that this chemical is potent lung carcinogen. Experiments have shown that BaP causes skin cancer in mouse and lung cancer in rodents. The Benzo[a]pyrene belongs to a group of Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), chemicals that appears in coal tar, broiled foods, exhaust gas from vehicles.


2. Dibenzo[a,i]pyrene

Dibenzo[a,i]pyrene’s concentration per cigarette is about 1.1ng

While amounts of Dibenzo[a,i]pyrene are much lower than those of BaP per cigarette, this chemical is much stronger carcinogens. It is estimated that Dibenzo[a,i]pyrene is 30 to 100 times more cancerogenic than BaP. Dibenzo[a,i]pyrene also belongs to a PAH group. It is created as a product of burning wood and coal, and it can be also found in diesel exhaust.


1. Benzene

Benzene’s concentrations per cigarette can range from 12 to 50μg

We finish our list of 7 Chemicals in Cigarettes That Cause Cancer with benzene. It is made of carbon and hydrogen, is best known as a chemical that is found in gasoline. It is also used in making plastics, rubbers, dyes, detergents, drugs, and pesticides, and it is a byproduct of natural processes, such as volcanoes and forest fires. It has been proven that benzene causes acute myeloid leukemia. At the same time there are strong evidence that exposure to benzene can lead to acute lymphocytic leukemia, chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), multiple myeloma, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

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