Revised March 2017
What is tobacco?
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Tobacco is a plant grown for its leaves, which are dried and fermented before being put in tobacco products. Tobacco contains nicotine, an ingredient that can lead to addiction, which is why so many people who use tobacco find it difficult to quit. There are also many other potentially harmful chemicals found in tobacco or created by burning it.
How do people use tobacco?
People can smoke, chew, or sniff tobacco. Smoked tobacco products include cigarettes, cigars, bidis, and kreteks. Some people also smoke loose tobacco in a pipe or hookah (water pipe). Chewed tobacco products include chewing tobacco, snuff, dip, and snus; snuff can also be sniffed.
How does tobacco affect the brain?
The nicotine in any tobacco product readily absorbs into the blood when a person uses it. Upon entering the blood, nicotine immediately stimulates the adrenal glands to release the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline). Epinephrine stimulates the central nervous system and increases blood pressure, breathing, and heart rate. As with drugs such as cocaine and heroin, nicotine increases levels of the chemical messenger dopamine, which affects parts of the brain that control reward and pleasure. Studies suggest that other chemicals in tobacco smoke, such as acetaldehyde, may enhance nicotine’s effects on the brain.
What are other health effects of tobacco use?
Although nicotine is addictive, most of the severe health effects of tobacco use comes from other chemicals. Tobacco smoking can lead to lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema. It increases the risk of heart disease, which can lead to stroke or heart attack. Smoking has also been linked to other cancers, leukemia, cataracts, and pneumonia. All of these risks apply to use of any smoked product, including hookah tobacco. Smokeless tobacco increases the risk of cancer, especially mouth cancers.
Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are battery-operated devices that deliver nicotine with flavorings and other chemicals to the lungs in vapor instead of smoke. E-cigarette companies often advertise them as safer than traditional cigarettes because they don't burn tobacco. But researchers actually know little about the health risks of using these devices. Read more about e-cigarettes in our Electronic Cigarettes (e-Cigarettes) DrugFacts.
Pregnant women who smoke cigarettes run an increased risk of miscarriage, stillborn or premature infants, or infants with low birth weight. Smoking while pregnant may also be associated with learning and behavioral problems in exposed children.
People who stand or sit near others who smoke are exposed to secondhand smoke, either coming from the burning end of the tobacco product or exhaled by the person who is smoking. Secondhand smoke exposure can also lead to lung cancer and heart disease. It can cause health problems in both adults and children, such as coughing, phlegm, reduced lung function, pneumonia, and bronchitis. Children exposed to secondhand smoke are at an increased risk of ear infections, severe asthma, lung infections, and death from sudden infant death syndrome.
How does tobacco use lead to addiction?
For many who use tobacco, long-term brain changes brought on by continued nicotine exposure result in addiction. When a person tries to quit, he or she may have withdrawal symptoms, including:
- problems paying attention
- trouble sleeping
- increased appetite
- powerful cravings for tobacco
How can people get treatment for nicotine addiction?
Both behavioral treatments and medications can help people quit smoking, but the combination of medication with counseling is more effective than either alone.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has established a national toll-free quitline, 1-800-QUIT-NOW, to serve as an access point for anyone seeking information and help in quitting smoking.
Government Regulation of Tobacco Products
On May 5, 2016, the FDA announced that nationwide tobacco regulations now extend to all tobacco products, including:
- e-cigarettes and their liquid solutions
- hookah tobacco
- pipe tobacco
This ruling includes restricting sale of these products to minors. For more information, see the FDA's webpage, The Facts on the FDA's New Tobacco Rule.
Behavioral treatments use a variety of methods to help people quit smoking, ranging from self-help materials to counseling. These treatments teach people to recognize high-risk situations and develop strategies to deal with them. For example, people who hang out with others who smoke are more likely to smoke and less likely to quit.
Nicotine Replacement Therapies
Nicotine replacement therapies (NRTs) were the first medications the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved for use in smoking cessation therapy.
Current FDA-approved NRT products include chewing gum, transdermal patch, nasal sprays, inhalers, and lozenges. NRTs deliver a controlled dose of nicotine to relieve withdrawal symptoms while the person tries to quit.
Bupropion (Zyban®) and varenicline (Chantix®) are two FDA-approved non-nicotine medications that have helped people quit smoking. They target nicotine receptors in the brain, easing withdrawal symptoms and blocking the effects of nicotine if people start smoking again.
Can a person overdose on nicotine?
Nicotine is poisonous and, though uncommon, overdose is possible. An overdose occurs when the person uses too much of a drug and has a toxic reaction that results in serious, harmful symptoms or death. Nicotine poisoning usually occurs in young children who accidentally chew on nicotine gum or patches used to quit smoking or swallow e-cigarette liquid. Symptoms include difficulty breathing, vomiting, fainting, headache, weakness, and increased or decreased heart rate. Anyone concerned that a child or adult might be experiencing a nicotine overdose should seek immediate medical help.
Points to Remember
- Tobacco is a plant grown for its leaves, which are dried and fermented before being put in tobacco products. Tobacco contains nicotine, the ingredient that can lead to addiction.
- People can smoke, chew, or sniff tobacco.
- Nicotine acts in the brain by stimulating the adrenal glands to release the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline) and by increasing levels of the chemical messenger dopamine.
- Tobacco smoking can lead to lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema. It increases the risk of heart disease, which can lead to stroke or heart attack. Smoking has also been linked to other cancers, leukemia, cataracts, and pneumonia. Smokeless tobacco increases the risk of cancer, especially mouth cancers.
- Secondhand smoke can lead to lung cancer and heart disease as well as other health effects in adults and children.
- For many who use tobacco, long-term brain changes brought on by continued nicotine exposure result in addiction.
- Both behavioral treatments and medication can help people quit smoking, but the combination of medication with counseling is more effective than either alone.
- Nicotine overdose is possible, though it usually occurs in young children who accidentally chew on nicotine gum or patches or swallow e-cigarette liquid.
- Anyone concerned that a child or adult might be experiencing a nicotine overdose should seek immediate medical help.
For more information about tobacco products and nicotine, visit our Tobacco/Nicotine webpage.
For more information about how to quit smoking, visit smokefree.gov.
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NIDA (2017). Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products. Retrieved , from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/cigarettes-other-tobacco-products
For help from the National Cancer Institute: 1-877-44U-QUIT (1-877-448-7848)
The National Cancer Institute's trained counselors are available to provide information and help with quitting in English or Spanish, Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time.
Lesson Plan and Activity Finder
Discusses the harmful effects of tobacco use, risks associated with pregnancy and adolescents, as well as best practices for the prevention and treatment of tobacco addiction.