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What is tobacco?

Tobacco is a green, leafy plant that is grown in warm climates. After tobacco is picked, dried and ground, it can be made into many products, such as cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco. Tobacco products are very addictive and cause serious health problems.Tobacco use is also the #1 preventable cause of death in the United States, killing close to half a million people each year.

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What’s in tobacco?

Tobacco products can contain up to 4,000 chemicals, 200 of which are deadly and 60 of which can cause cancer. The most dangerous is nicotine, a powerful chemical that makes tobacco products addictive and causes heart problems. Ammonia, cyanide, arsenic and thousands of other poisons are in tobacco products as well as tobacco smoke. Tobacco smoke also contains tar, which sticks on and damages lung tissue, and carbon monoxide, a deadly poison that destroys red blood cells. These chemicals can cause deadly health problems. Even if you do not use tobacco, breathing in secondhand smoke (also known as environmental tobacco smoke) can be just as dangerous.

Fast Fact:

1 out of every 5 deaths in the United States is the result of a tobacco-related illness.
Source: National Cancer Institute, U.S. National Institute of Health

What types of tobacco products are there?

There are many kinds of tobacco products, which can either be chewed, smoked or inhaled. The most common forms of tobacco include:


Paper-wrapped tobacco leaves that are smoked, usually through a filtered end. Cigarettes are the most popular tobacco product (47 million Americans smoke cigarettes) and the number one cause of cancer, COPD and premature death in the United States.


Tightly-rolled unfiltered bundles of tobacco leaves which are lit and smoked. While many users do not inhale the smoke, cigars can still harm the lungs as well as the mouth, gums and throat.

Chewing tobacco and snuff

Small tobacco plug or a ground-up form of tobacco that release flavored tobacco juice when chewed or held in the mouth. Chewing tobacco and snuff can cause mouth, gum and throat cancer. At least 28 chemicals in smokeless tobacco have been found to cause cancer (1).

Other common types of tobacco products include: blunts, marijuana rolled in a cigar or tobacco wrapper; bidis, small unfiltered cigarettes that are also flavored; and cloves, a cigarette that blends tobacco, cloves and a “flavored sauce.” A hookah, a large water pipe with multiple hoses, may also be used to smoke tobacco. No matter what form it comes in, tobacco can be DEADLY!

How does tobacco use affect your health?

Tobacco is not safe for anyone. When tobacco products are used, thousands of dangerous chemicals attack various parts of the body:


Smoking any type of tobacco can harm the airways and decrease airflow. This can lead to chronic coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and lung infections. Over time, smokers are at a very high risk of getting deadly forms of lung disease, such as emphysema and lung cancer.

Heart and Cardiovascular System

Chemicals found in tobacco can enter the blood stream where they can cause high blood pressure, circulation problems, strokes and heart attacks.

Mouth, Gums and Throat

Tobacco use can cause bad breath, tooth decay, cavities, stained teeth and gum disease. There is also a risk of getting cancer in the mouth, gums and throat, especially among smokeless tobacco users (who chew or suck on tobacco) and cigar smokers (who often hold the smoke in their mouth).

How does tobacco use affect the environment?

The environmental effects of tobacco smoking are often overlooked. Cigarette butts litter our streets and are the most common item of trash on our beaches. They leach chemicals into the water, are toxic to pets and wildlife, and are a health hazard for children who may pick them up.

How dangerous is smoking during pregnancy?

Tobacco is EXTREMELY dangerous to pregnant women as well as their unborn children. Tobacco use can lead to low birth weight, miscarriage, premature birth and infant death. Exposure of children to parental tobacco smoke during pregnancy affects their arterial structure and function in early life.

Other Health Effects

Tobacco use can lead to cancer of the stomach, kidneys, pancreas and bladder. It can also cause ulcers, cataracts on the eye, wrinkles, yellow skin, a hairy tongue, and make you look much older than you are. The more you use tobacco, the greater the risk to your health. And because it is so addictive, many people end up using tobacco much more often than they had first planned.

Even if you don’t use tobacco, breathing in secondhand smoke can lead to the same health problems. Secondhand smoke has all of the dangerous chemicals found in tobacco and can cause heart disease and lung cancer. It can also cause ear infections, asthma and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in children.

The total adult health-related cost of smoking was estimated to be $18.1 billion in California in 2004 – one half of the total expenditures allocated for health and human services in the 2008-2009 budget. Productivity losses due to smoking-attributed death or illness were estimated to be $8.5 billion. If smokers were to pay for these smoking related health care costs, the price of a pack of cigarettes would need to be increased by $9.70.

How can you protect yourself from the dangers of tobacco?

If you don’t use tobacco, then don’t start! Tobacco is very addictive and can be very hard to quit. Those who do use tobacco should quit now. Doing so can have immediate health benefits and add years to your life. Even if you have used tobacco for years, quitting can still lower your risk for many health problems. It is never too late!

It is also important for non-smokers to avoid secondhand smoke as much as possible. Create a smoke-free policy in and around your home and make sure everyone follows the policy. When out in public, spend time at smoke-free places and try to stay away from those who are smoking. It is especially important for the following high-risk individuals to avoid secondhand smoke altogether:

  • Infants and children
  • Persons with heart and lung disease
  • Pregnant women
  • Seniors or anyone in poor health

You can contact your local Breathe California office at 1-877-3-BREATHE to learn about classes, self-help programs and other resources to help protect yourself and your loved ones from the dangers of tobacco.

Smoking Statistics:

  • Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable and premature death in the U.S. Approximately 440,000 people in the U.S. die each year from cigarette smoking.
  • Recent estimates report estimated that over 43,000 deaths in California (nearly 1 death in 5) could be attributed to cigarette smoking.
  • Smoking is responsible for 87% of all lung cancer cases and 30% of ALL cancer deaths. National Cancer Institute, U.S. National Institute of Health
  • Smoking kills more Americans each year than alcohol, cocaine, heroin, homicide, suicide, car accidents, fires and AIDS combined.
  • Each year, secondhand smoke may be responsible for about 3,000 lung cancer deaths among nonsmokers and an additional 35,000 to 40,000 cases of heart disease among people who are not current smokers. The Surgeon General has identified cigarette smoking as “a major cause of lung, laryngeal, oral and esophageal cancer; a contributory factor for bladder, pancreatic, and kidney cancer; and associated with both stomach and cervical cancers.