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Tobacco Centre for Addiction
and Mental Health

About Tobacco

From the "About tobacco" publication, 2006.

What is tobacco?

Tobacco is a plant that contains the drug nicotine. Even though tobacco causes many health problems, people all over the world have been using it for hundreds of years.

What’s in smoke?

Cigarette smoke contains about 4,000 chemicals and poisons. Over 50 of these cause cancer.

Did you know?

All these poisons—and more—are in tobacco smoke:

  • nicotine
  • tar
  • carbon monoxide
  • cyanide
  • arsenic
  • formaldehyde
  • ammonia
  • benzene

More information about nicotine, tar and carbon monoxide

  • Nicotine is the addictive drug in tobacco. When you smoke tobacco, nicotine goes into your bloodstream and reaches your brain within eight to 10 seconds.
  • Nicotine can be a deadly poison that causes vomiting, shaking, convulsions and death. A few drops of nicotine can kill you.
  • People picking tobacco quickly absorb nicotine through their skin. This makes them dizzy and feel like throwing up—an illness called green tobacco sickness.
  • Tar is a sticky black glob made up of thousands of chemicals. Many of them cause cancer.
  • Tar builds up in the lungs and makes breathing harder. It also plays a part in causing lung disease and cancer.
Carbon monoxide
  • Carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas that forms when anything - including tobacco - is burned.
  • When you inhale carbon monoxide, it takes the place of oxygen in the blood.

Did you know?

Studies show that each cigarette shortens your life by about 10 minutes.

  • Of every 1,000 Canadians aged 20 who continue to smoke, about half (500) will die from smoking - 250 of them before the age of 70.
  • On average, people who die from smoking lose 15 years of their expected life!

Fast facts

Children and pets have been accidentally poisoned by eating cigarette butts.

In North America, Aboriginal people introduced tobacco to European explorers and settlers. Tobacco use quickly spread back to Europe. Before the 20th century, tobacco was mostly used for chewing, pipe or cigar smoking, or sniffing as snuff.

James Bonsack developed a cigarette-rolling machine in the 1880s. This invention led to the mass production of cigarettes. This made cigarettes much more readily available. The invention of matches also made it easy to light up any time. More and more people started smoking - and also getting sick.

Who uses tobacco?
  • In 2005, one-third (33%) of Ontario students in grades 7 to 12 said they had tried a cigarette at some time.
  • One in seven students (14%) said they had smoked cigarettes during the last year. This is almost 140,000 students.
  • Most students (67%) have never smoked—not even a puff!
  • Rates of smoking were similar for both male (14%) and female students (15%).
  • More than half (58%) of the students who smoked had tried to quit smoking in the past year.

Quick quiz

  1. True or false: If you use tobacco but don’t actually smoke it, it’s not bad for you.
  2. True or false: Tobacco kills 3,700 Canadians every year.
  3. Who do you think has the hardest time quitting?
    • A person giving up nicotine
    • A person giving up heroin
    • A person giving up alcohol.
  1. False. Both snuff and chewing tobacco contain nicotine and other cancer-causing chemicals. While snuff doesn’t cause respiratory diseases, it causes cancer of the mouth, gum disease and other problems.
  2. False. A recent report puts the annual death toll from tobacco at about 37,000 Canadians.
  3. Believe it or not, all three have about the same rate of failure.

Tobacco and its effects

Different forms of tobacco

How is tobacco made?

Tobacco leaves are processed in different ways before they are used to make cigarettes and other products. The type of tobacco leaf used and the method of curing or drying changes how the tobacco smoke tastes and how much nicotine it contains.

  • Flue cured or dried tobacco is heated to speed the curing process. This tobacco is called bright or Virginia tobacco
  • Air-cured tobacco is called Burley or Maryland tobacco.
  • Sun-cured tobacco is called Oriental tobacco.
  • Tobacco stems and leaves can be mixed together and rolled into a sheet that is then shredded. Sometimes tobacco is puffed or freeze dried.

Cigarettes, cigars and smokeless tobacco products are made from blends of different kinds of tobacco.

Cigarettes are made from a mixture of tobacco wrapped in a paper tube. They can be made by machines or rolled by hand. Many manufactured cigarettes have a filter.

What are low-tar cigarettes?

Low-tar cigarettes are just as bad as regular cigarettes, especially if you:

  • plug up the holes in the filter (usually you can’t see these holes)
  • inhale deeply
  • smoke a lot
What is “sauced” tobacco?

Many ingredients are added to tobacco products. Why?

  • to make the smoke seem milder or cooler (sugar, menthol oils)
  • to increase the nicotine hit (ammonia)
  • to keep cigarettes fresh (glycerol)
  • to change the taste of cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco and snuff (fruit extracts, spices, sugars, syrups, licorice and even chocolate!)
  • to control the speed of burning (inorganic salts).
What’s a plug?

A plug is chewing tobacco. It is made from chopped tobacco leaves pressed together. The plug is chewed and then spit out.

What’s snuff?

“Dipping” snuff is rough-cut smokeless tobacco—finely chopped tobacco leaves that are put between the cheek and gum. “Sniffing” snuff is dry, powdered tobacco that is put up the nose.

Are pipes and cigars safe?

Smoke from pipes and cigars can harm you too. Many people who smoke pipes and cigars do not inhale - but they have more risk of getting cancer of the lip, mouth, tongue or throat. And most people who switch from cigarettes to pipes do inhale!

Is tobacco addictive?

Yes, cigarettes and other forms of tobacco are addictive. All ways of using tobacco—cigarettes, pipes, cigars, chewing tobacco and snuff—are ways of getting nicotine into your body.

  • Nicotine works fast. When you smoke a cigarette, nicotine is absorbed quickly through the lungs and into the bloodstream. Once it is in the bloodstream, nicotine reaches the brain within seconds.
  • Nicotine in chewing tobacco and snuff is absorbed through the mucous membranes of the mouth or nose.
How does tobacco make you feel?
  • When people first try smoking cigarettes or using other tobacco products, they usually feel dizzy or sick. When tobacco is used again and again, your body gets used to the effects of nicotine.
  • Many people who smoke regularly say it relaxes them or helps them concentrate. But regular smokers need nicotine, just to feel normal. They miss nicotine when they don’t smoke!
How long do the effects last?

When you smoke a cigarette, you feel the effects within seconds—but they last for only a short time. When you inhale a puff of cigarette smoke, nicotine is rapidly absorbed through the small airways and alveoli of the lungs into the bloodstream. From here, it goes through the heart and is pumped to the brain within eight to 10 seconds. Each time you take a puff, the brain gets another hit of nicotine. Most regular smokers feel like they want to smoke another cigarette 30 to 60 minutes after smoking.

Do you feel bad when you quit?
  • Yes, many people who quit tobacco feel bad as their bodies adjust to no longer taking in nicotine and the other chemicals in tobacco. These bad feelings are called withdrawal symptoms. How you feel when you give up tobacco depends on many factors: how much and how often you smoke, how long you've been smoking, your expectations about quitting and other events in your life.
  • Generally, withdrawal symptoms are worse for heavy smokers who have smoked for a long time.
  • Withdrawal symptoms are worst in the first week after you stop smoking. Most symptoms get less in the next few weeks—but you may still want to smoke for a long time.
  • People with withdrawal symptoms often:
    • feel irritable or restless
    • have difficulty concentrating
    • sleep poorly
    • have a bigger appetite or gain weight
    • badly want a cigarette

The dangers and the law

Is tobacco dangerous?

Yes, there are many health risks related to smoking and other tobacco use. It is the number one cause of preventable, premature death in Canada!

  • Kids who start smoking early are more likely to become heavy smokers. They have more risk of getting health problems or dying from smoking.
  • Tobacco kills more Canadians than alcohol, AIDS illegal drugs, car crashes, suicide and murder all combined.
What are the health effects of tobacco?

Teens who smoke begin to show the damage within a few years. They have:

  • lungs that may grow more slowly or don’t work as well
  • poorer physical fitness
  • more colds and coughs
  • more phlegm (thick mucous)
  • more wheezing and asthma

Long-term effects

  • More than 30 per cent of all cancer in the world is caused by tobacco.
  • Smoking causes 90 per cent of lung cancer. It is also linked to many other cancers—including cancers of the head and neck, stomach, kidney and bladder.
  • People who smoke have more risk of cardiovascular (heart-related) disease, including heart attacks and strokes.
  • Smoking can cause respiratory (breathing-related) diseases, such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
  • People who smoke have weaker immune systems and are sick more often.
  • They are more likely to get stomach ulcers.
  • They are also more likely to have problems with sex (erections) and fertility.
  • About half the people who start smoking in their teens and keep on smoking will die from a tobacco-related cause.
Can breathing in someone else's smoke cause health problems?

Yes. Smoke from someone else’s cigarette is called second-hand smoke. Children whose parents smoke:

  • get more ear infections, bronchitis and pneumonia
  • get asthma more often and have worse asthma attacks
  • are more likely to die as infants when exposed to second-hand smoke.
  • in Canada, it is illegal to sell or give tobacco to anyone under the age of 18.
  • some provinces have stricter laws. In Ontario, British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland, it is illegal to sell or give tobacco to anyone under the age of 19.
  • some provinces have laws against young people possessing tobacco. In Alberta, it is illegal to possess tobacco if you are under 18. In Nova Scotia, the age is 19.
  • tobacco advertising and sponsorship is banned in Canada.

Did you know?

Pregnant girls and women who smoke have more risk of problems, including:

  • miscarriage
  • having their baby born too soon
  • having their baby born dead
  • having a smaller baby.

Did you know?

Mothers who smoke pass on nicotine and other cancer-causing chemicals to their babies through breast milk. These chemicals are even in the breast milk of mothers who are around second-hand smoke.

Is tobacco legal?
  • In Canada, it is illegal to sell or give tobacco to anyone under the age of 18
  • Some provinces have stricter laws. In Ontario, British columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland, it is illegal to sell or give tobacco to anyone under the age of 19.
  • Tobacco advertising and sponsorship is banned in Canada
  • In Canada, cigarette packaging laws are strict. Cigarette packages must show how much tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide the cigarettes produce. But beware! Smokers can easily take in more than the amounts reported on the package just by puffing more or inhaling more deeply.

Did you know?

In Ontario, you can be fined for selling or giving tobacco to anyone under 19. For an individual, the fine is up to $4,000 for the first offence. For a store or company, the fine is up to $10,000 for the first offence and up to $150,000 for a third offence or more.

Did you know?

In Ontario, it is against the law to smoke or even hold a lit cigarette on school property! This includes smoking in a car parked on school property.

Quitting smoking and reducing risks

What is the effect of tobacco around the world?
  • Tobacco is the only everyday product that kills people when it is used as it is supposed to be used.
  • Four million people around the world die each year because of tobacco use. That’s 11,000 deaths every day!
  • In 2030, the number will reach 10 million. That’s 19 tobacco related deaths every minute!
  • If the land used for growing tobacco were used to grow food, there would be enough to feed 10 to 20 million people.
What are the benefits of quitting?

The sooner a person quits smoking the better—but it’s never too late to improve your health. Some improvements happen almost at once.

  • Carbon monoxide is gone within the first 24 hours.
  • One year after quitting, the risk of a heart attack is cut in half.
  • Ten years after quitting, the risk of lung cancer is cut in half.
  • After 15 years, the risk of a heart attack drops to that of someone who has never smoked.

Did you know?

Even with everything we now know about tobacco, about one person in five still smokes in Canada! Many experts say tobacco causes far more harm than illegal drugs. There is no way tobacco could pass safety laws today. It would not be allowed.

What about the tobacco industry?

Tobacco companies spend billions of dollars a year promoting their brands. They have promoted smoking through the movies, fashion awards, sponsorship of car racing and other sports, and concerts and parties in bars and clubs. All these promotions have one purpose—to attract you to smoking. They often make it look like everyone’s smoking because it’s the cool thing to do. Remember to think for yourself! Most people don’t smoke!

Fast Facts

If you smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, it will cost over $2,000 a year. Think what you could do with the savings!

How can I reduce my risks?

  • If you do smoke, try to quit. It can be hard and may take more than one try, but don’t be discouraged – it’s worth the effort. Think about why you want to quit. Talk to you doctor or call a quit line to get help.
  • If you don’t smoke now, don’t start! Think about your reasons for not smoking, and plan how to say “no.”
  • Many communities have rules against smoking in public places. Try to choose smoke free places when you go out with family and friends.
  • Second-hand smoke is harmful too. Talk to your family about not allowing smoking in your home. The harmful chemicals from tobacco stay around long after the smoke is gone.
  • If you drive, don’t allow smoking in your car. If you are traveling with someone who smokes, pull over for him or her to have a smoke break outside the car.
How can I get help?

If you or someone you know wants to quit smoking, you can call a quit line for help. If you live in Ontario, call Smokers’ Help Line at 1 877 513-5333. They will offer information, advice and support. Your local public health department, listed in the blue pages of your phone book, can also help. You can also find help on the Internet. Try Health Canada’s Tobacco Control Programme website at

Do you, a family member or a friend have a problem with tobacco, alcohol or other drugs? If you want help, you may want to talk to someone you trust, such as your doctor, a teacher, a health nurse, or a guidance or addiction counsellor. You might also want to contact an addiction assessment centre or a self-help group such as Nicotine Anonymous (look in the Yellow Pages of your phone book under “Addictions”). Here are some other places to look for help:

  • Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s Information Centre at 1 800 463-6273
  • Kids Help Phone at 1 800 668-6868
  • Ontario Drug and Alcohol Registry of Treatment at 1 800 565-8603 or
About tobacco

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