In a plaintive decry of the recent Supreme Court ruling that forced them to pay $15 billion dollars to Quebec smokers, three of the largest tobacco companies in Canada asserted that “Canadians have had a very high awareness of the health risks of smoking” since the 1950s. The companies’ (Imperial Tobacco, Rothmans Benson & Hedges and JTI-MacDonald) perfidious bleeting might be comical if it weren’t so morbid, seeing as a significant portion of the $15 billion was expressly punitive for the companies’ role in suppressing and destroying evidence of the dangers of smoking.
Corporate conscienceless notwithstanding, Canadians nowadays have little excuse for not being aware of the dangers of smoking. Since the 1950s, a surfeit of information that connects smoking and cancer, heart disease, and other systemic illnesses has been available for public access, unassailed by the smokey hands of tobacco company PR teams. This data, alongside grotesque images of disease-riddled body parts, has been the main component of innumerable anti-smoking PSAs, childrens programs, and cigarette packages.
However, not many of us know what’s exactly in a cigarette, or what actually causes the harm. Tobacco? Paper? Windshield washer fluid? CHEMICALS?
Cigarettes contain over 500 unique additives, which, when combusted alongside tobacco, produce over 4,000 unique chemicals. Anti-smoking campaigns often highlight the most obscure and dangerous-sounding of these in a blatant display of chemophobia-mongering, and it’s interesting to point out that most of the harmful effects of smoking are due largely to the combustion of tobacco, not the combustion of chemical additives. In fact, most of the compounds added to cigarettes are actually approved as food substances by the Food and Drug Administration. While this is not to say that they are all safe to burn, inhale and suffuse throughout your alveoli, the chemicals added to cigarettes do appear to pose the lesser threat than the tobacco itself.
So- what’s in a cigarette?
We’ve all heard that cigarettes contain ammonia, arsenic, and cyanide, but perhaps not that they contain chamomile, isobutyl-3-methoxypyrazine, or walnut hull. Here are 5 additives you may not have heard about, and why evil companies put them into cigarettes:
Licorice is added to tobacco as a sweetening and moisturizing agent. It’s derived as a highly pungent oil, and serves to harmonize flavours and mask some of the undesirable acridity of tobacco combustion. Licorice exists as about 0.25-0.4% of the tobacco weight in a cigarette.
Found in nature: duh licorice
Other uses: candies, liqueurs
Harmful effects: toxicity unconfirmed
Propylene glycol is a clear, odorless liquid that absorbs moisture from tobacco and adds a slightly sweet taste to cigarettes. It also helps minimize the fine dust created when cigarettes jostle together while being shipped.
Found in nature: sesame seeds, mushrooms
Other uses: frosting, pickles, antifreeze
Harmful effects: none; very low toxicity in humans via ingestion, inhalation or subcutaneous exposure
When you mix pentanol and butyric acid in the presence of sulfuric acid, you get pentyl butyrate. It smells vaguely like pears. It’s added to cigarettes to make the smoke smell vaguely like pears (?)
Found in nature: no
Other uses: just pears
Harmful effects: “No hazard beyond that of ordinary combustible material”
I MADE isoamyl in a chemistry lab once- it’s used to exemplify Fischer esterification in 1st year chemistry, and it smells exactly like those foamy banana marshmellows. I developed a deep appreciation for Fischer esterification and foamy bananas after spilling my beaker-ful on my lab notebook and walking around smelling like a fake banana all day, so suffice to say this is my favourite chemical additive in cigarettes. Isoamyl aceate adds a saccharine odor to cigarette smoke, and also to lab notebooks.
Found in nature: Banana plants
Other uses: Isoamyl acetate is released by a honeybee’s stinger when it strikes, and it encourages other bees to come over and enthusiastically sting the shit out of you.
Harmful effects: when heated, isoamyl acetate emits acrid fumes. When inhaled, it causes nausea, headache and dizziness
Decanoic acid (or capric acid; Latin: capra, ‘goat’) is a saturated fatty acid that is added to cigarettes for a unique reason: it smells strongly of rancid, sweaty goats. Decanoic acid is just one of the endless number of additives used to finely tune the complex profile of cigarette smoke, presumably by contributing just the right amount of goat flavouring.
Found in nature: Decanoic acid occurs naturally in coconut and palm kernel oils, and in the milk of goats
Other uses: artificial sweeteners, perfumes; it is also used as an intermediate in pharmaceutical production to boost the lipophilicity of target drug molecules, making them penetrate human fatty tissue more effectively
Harmful effects: Decanoic acid decomposes upon combustion, producing harsh fumes that irritate the upper respiratory tract, eyes and skin.
Don’t smoke- it’s really, really bad for you. However, at least now you have a better idea of which chemicals do the damage, and which ones just smell like goats.