Tobacco: Health Effects

By Nutrition Expert – Trupti Gurav,Mumbai

Tobacco is a plant that contains nicotine, a psychoactive (mind altering) drug that speeds up activity in our central nervous system but has relaxing effects too.

Tobacco is available in many forms, including cigarettes, pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco, and snuff or snus (a powder that is sniffed or put between the lower lip or cheek and gums). All forms of tobacco are harmful, and there is no safe level of exposure to tobacco. [1]

Tobacco is highly addictive and can ultimately lead to countless health complications. Every year, May 31st marks World No Tobacco Day, a time to focus on the risks associated with tobacco use. [2] The tobacco epidemic is one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced, killing more than 8 million people a year around the world. More than 7 million of those deaths are the result of direct tobacco use while around 1.2 million are the result of non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke. [3]

Composition of tobacco

Tobacco product contains around 5000 toxic substances. Most important and dangerous constituent are:

  1. Nicotine
  2. Carbon monoxide
  3. Tar

Why do we use tobacco?

Humans have been using tobacco for many years for a variety of reasons. [1][4]

Tobacco has played an important role in ceremonies and served to mark special occasions such as the birth of a baby. For others, it has been used to increase alertness or to relax and connect with friends and acquaintances at social gatherings.

Whereas someone may smoke a cigarette to relax after work, using tobacco as a tool to relieve stress may lead to reaching for a cigarette whenever they feel irritated or tense.

The tobacco industry spends billions of dollars each year to create and market ads that show smoking as exciting, glamorous, and safe. Tobacco use is also shown in video games, online, and on TV. And movies showing smokers are another big influence. 

A newer influence on tobacco use is the e-cigarette and other high-tech, fashionable electronic “vaping” devices. Often seen harmless and easier to get and use than traditional tobacco products, these devices are a great way for new users to learn how to inhale and become addicted to nicotine, which can prepare them for smoking.

What happens when we use tobacco?

When tobacco is chewed or sniffed, nicotine is absorbed through membranes in the mouth and nose. It then travels through the body to the brain.

Nicotine triggers the release of dopamine, a chemical in the brain associated with pleasure. The effect scan range from mild stimulation to relaxation. But tobacco (and other nicotine products) may affect different people in different ways, depending on how much is used and how often. 

Risks of tobacco

Knowing the serious health risks of using tobacco may help motivate you to quit. Using tobacco over a long time can increase your risk of many health problems [5]

Heart and blood vessel problems:

  • Blood clots and weakness in the walls of blood vessels in the brain, which can lead to stroke
  • Blood clots in the legs, which may travel to the lungs
  • Coronary artery disease, including angina and heart attack
  • Temporarily increased blood pressure after smoking
  • Poor blood supply to the legs
  • Problems with erections because of decreased blood flow into the penis

Other health risks or problems:

  • Cancer (more likely in the lung, mouth, larynx, nose and sinuses, throat, esophagus, stomach, bladder, kidney, pancreas, cervix, colon, and rectum)
  • Poor wound healing after surgery
  • Lung problems, such as COPD, or asthma that is harder to control
  • Problems during pregnancy, such as babies born at a low birth weight, early labor, losing your baby, and cleft lip
  • Decreased ability to taste and smell
  • Harm to sperm, which may lead to infertility
  • Loss of sight due to an increased risk of macular degeneration
  • Tooth and gum diseases
  • Wrinkling of the skin

Smokers who switch to smokeless tobacco instead of quitting tobacco still have health risks:

  • Increased risk of cancer of the mouth, tongue, esophagus, and pancreas
  • Gum problems, tooth wear, and cavities
  • Worsening high blood pressure and angina

What are treatments for tobacco and nicotine addiction?

There are many treatments available for tobacco addiction. However, this addiction can be very difficult to manage. [6]

The patch

The patch is known as a nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). It’s a small, bandage-like sticker that you apply to your arm or back. The patch delivers low levels of nicotine to the body. This helps gradually wean the body off it.

Nicotine gum

Nicotine gum can help people who need the oral fixation of smoking or chewing. This is common, as people who are quitting smoking may have the urge to put something into their mouths. The gum also delivers small doses of nicotine to help you manage cravings.

Spray or inhaler

Nicotine sprays and inhalers can help by giving low doses of nicotine without tobacco use. These are sold over the counter and are widely available. The spray is inhaled, sending nicotine into the lungs.


Some doctors recommend the use of medication to help with tobacco addictions. Certain antidepressants or high blood pressure drugs might be able to help manage cravings.

Psychological and behavioral treatments

Some people who use tobacco have success with methods such as:

  • Hypnotherapy
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Neuro-linguistic programming

These methods help the user change their thoughts about addiction. They work to alter feelings or behaviors your brain associates with tobacco use.

Quitting tobacco is difficult, but your doctor can help you make a plan. Ask them for advice. There are a variety of nonprescription and prescription medications that can help you quit. You can also turn to our smoking cessation resource center, which has advice, stories from others, and more. There are both short and long-term benefits to quitting smoking. Since tobacco affects every body system, finding a way to quit is the most important step you can take to living a longer and happier life.



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