Tobacco comes from the leaves of the tobacco plant (Nicotiana tabacum and Nicotiana rustica). The leaves are dried, cured, aged and combined with other ingredients to produce a range of products such as cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco, and wet and dry snuff.
Leaves from the tobacco plant contain nicotine. Nicotine is a stimulant drug. Stimulant drugs act on the central nervous system to speed up the messages travelling between the brain and the body.
Cigs, fags, butts, darts, smokes, cancer sticks, ciggies, rollies.
What’s in tobacco smoke?
There are more than 4000 chemicals in tobacco smoke. Many of these chemicals are poisonous and at least 43 of them are carcinogenic (cause cancer).
The 3 major chemicals in tobacco smoke are:
How is it used?
Cigarettes are the most common way to smoke tobacco. Smoking tobacco in cigars and pipes is less popular. When tobacco is smoked, nicotine is absorbed through the membranes of the mouth and upper respiratory tract.
When tobacco is chewed (as chewing tobacco or wet snuff), the nicotine is absorbed through the membranes in the mouth. It can also be sniffed (dry snuff) and the nicotine is then absorbed through the lining of the nose.
'Light' or 'low tar' cigarettes
Some people believe that smoking 'light' or 'low tar' cigarettes is less harmful than regular cigarettes. However, there is little difference between the amount of chemicals inhaled by people who smoke 'light' cigarettes and those who smoke regular ones.
The effects of any drug (including tobacco) vary from person to person. How tobacco affects a person depends on many things including their size, weight and health, also whether the person is used to taking it. The effects of tobacco, as with any drug, also depend on the amount taken.
In Australia, tobacco use is responsible for approximately 15,000 deaths each year. In 2004–2005 approximately three-quarters of a million hospital bed-days were a result of tobacco use. (Collins & Lapsley, 2008)
There is no safe level of tobacco use. Use of any drug always carries some risk—even medications can produce unwanted side effects. It is important to be careful when taking any type of drug.
Immediate effectsLow to moderate doses
Some of the effects that may be experienced after smoking tobacco include:
A high dose of nicotine can cause a person to overdose. This means that a person has taken more nicotine than their body can cope with. The effects of very large doses can include:
Tar in cigarettes coats the lungs and can cause lung and throat cancer in smokers. It is also responsible for the yellow–brown staining on smokers’ fingers and teeth.
Carbon monoxide in cigarettes reduces the amount of oxygen available to the muscles, brain and blood. This means the whole body—especially the heart—must work harder. Over time this causes airways to narrow and blood pressure to rise, which can lead to heart attack and stroke.
High levels of CO, together with nicotine, increase the risk of heart disease, hardening of the arteries and other circulatory problems.
Some of the long-term effects of smoking (Quit Victoria, 2010) that may be experienced include:
Other effects of tobacco use
Passive smoking occurs when a person who is not smoking breathes in the smoke from people who are smoking. Passive smoking can irritate the eyes and nose and cause a number of health problems such as heart disease and lung cancer. Tobacco smoke is especially harmful to babies and young children.
Using tobacco with other drugs
Nicotine can affect the way the body processes many different drugs. This can affect how these drugs work. For example, nicotine can decrease the effectiveness of benzodiazepines. Smoking while taking the contraceptive pill increases the risk of blood clots forming.
Check with your doctor or other health professional whether nicotine might affect any medications you are taking.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding
People who use tobacco regularly tend to develop a tolerance to the effects of nicotine. This means they need to smoke more tobacco to get the same effect.
People who are psychologically dependent on nicotine may find they feel an urge to smoke when they are in specific surroundings or socialising with friends.
Physical dependence occurs when a person’s body adapts to the nicotine and gets used to functioning with the nicotine present.
Giving up tobacco after using it for a long time is challenging, because the body has to get used to functioning without it. Withdrawal symptoms may last from a few days to a few weeks. Symptoms include:
For information about quitting smoking, and to access support services, visit Quit Victoria.
Click on the button below to use the Quit Now Calculator to find out how much you could save when you quit smoking.
What to do if you are concerned about someone's tobacco use
Find statistics about the use of tobacco in Australia.
Tobacco and the law
Federal and state laws make it an offence to sell or supply tobacco products to people under 18 years of age. It is also illegal for anyone under 18 years to purchase tobacco products.
There are laws that regulate and restrict how tobacco products are advertised, promoted and packaged.
There are also laws and regulations that restrict smoking in public areas such as shopping centres, cafes and workplaces. Most states and territories have laws that ban smoking in cars with children.
Please note: This information does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in this way. The information is correct at the time of publication. For information specific to your situation contact a legal aid service in your state or territory.Read more about drugs and the law.
Australia's drug policy
Australia's national drug policy is based on harm minimisation. Strategies to minimise harm include encouraging people to avoid using a drug through to helping people to reduce the risk of harm if they do use a drug. It aims to reduce all types of drug-related harm to both the individual and the community.
Collins D & Lapsley H 2008 The costs of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drug abuse to Australian society in 2004–05 [PDF: 500KB] (new window), Canberra: Department of Health and Ageing.
Quit Victoria 2010 'Smoking and surgery' at http://www.quit.org.au/questions/frequently-asked-questions/how-does-smoking-affect-my-body/pages/smoking-and-surgery.aspx (accessed 22/4/2011).
This information has been adapted from the pamphlet How Drugs Affect You: Tobacco, produced by the Australian Drug Foundation. For single copies of this pamphlet, contact DrugInfo. Multiple copies are available from the ADF Bookshop.
Last updated: 27 June 2014
Information you heard is intended as a general guide only. This audio is copyrighted by the Australian Drug Foundation. Visit www.DrugInfo.ADF.org.au for more