Contents of cigarettes

Many people know that tobacco smoke contains tar, nicotine and other substances – but only a few know what these substances do to the body. Here we shed some light on this.

The following graphic shows an overview of the most important ingredients in cigarettes; please read on below for more detailed information.

Below you will find a list of the more well-known toxic substances in tobacco smoke, their effect on the body and (if known) areas of application of these substances in industry, the military and the penal system.


Tar clogs the cilia in the airways and lungs. As a result, dust, for example, can no longer be coughed up. As a result, dust particles and the pollutants and pathogens that adhere to them are deposited in the airways and lungs.

Tar is used in road construction, among other things, and was classified as hazardous waste requiring monitoring in connection with this application in 2002 (waste code 17 03 01 – bituminous mixtures containing coal tar).

When a pack of cigarettes is consumed daily, every year the lungs absorb approximately the amount of tar that fits in a standard teacup.


Among other things, mercury acts as a cytotoxin on proteins, which is why soluble mercury compounds are toxic. Mercury vapors enter the body through the mucous membranes and the lungs, for example, and are stored in the central nervous system and the kidneys, where they develop their toxic effect. Chronic exposure to mercury leads to fatigue, dizziness, insomnia, memory loss, loss of concentration, hyperexcitability, headaches, nerve pain, tremors, hair loss and depression.

Mercury is used industrially in areas such as pest control and special lamps. In the past, mercury was also used in the manufacture of amalgam seals. In cigarette production, mercury is used to clean the tobacco leaves.

Regular fish eaters are normally exposed to an increased concentration of mercury. Shark, swordfish, marlin, marlin and tuna are particularly contaminated (as of February 5, 2003). There has also been an increase in mercury levels in vegetables in recent years (due to pesticides) – leafy vegetables are particularly contaminated.


Arsenic is an element of the nitrogen group, together with the equally toxic elements phosphorus, antimony and bismuth. Arsenic has a semi-metallic character, whereby its metallic properties are between those of phosphorus and antimony. Like phosphorus, it is very reactive as a nitrogen group element and occurs in many organic and inorganic compounds.

The golden yellow arsenic trisulphide is found in nature and was used by painters as a substitute for gold under the name auripigment or tinted yellow. As the pictures painted in this way spread a certain toxicity, it is no longer used indoors today.

Organic arsenic compounds were used before the penicillin era for the chemotherapy of syphilis and various protozoan diseases. Arsenic was thus one of the first antibiotics (anti: against, bios: life). It quickly kills microorganisms, especially parasites. Unfortunately, it also kills the host too easily. This property of arsenic to attack parasites and other microbes was for a long time the reason for one of the main commercial uses of arsenic: it was and still is used in plant protection products. Residues can lead to harmful accumulations on fruit and even in tobacco. It was increasingly present in tobacco (at least until 1951) (1932: 12.6 micrograms, 1951: 42 micrograms). There it increases the other carcinogenic properties of cigarettes.

Arsenic can be found in the following industries: pharmaceutical production, mining/smelting, printing technology, leather goods production, explosives industry; arsenic is also a component of sewage sludge and pesticides. The toxicity of arsenic and its compounds varies. Metallic arsenic and sparingly soluble sulphides are almost non-toxic, while trivalent arsenic is highly toxic. Inhalation of arsenic vapors causes irritation of the mucous membranes, pulmonary oedema and impaired kidney and liver function. Poisoning manifests itself in skin irritation, headaches or even tumor formation.


Cyanides are salts of hydrogen cyanide (hydrocyanic acid) that contain the toxic cyanide anion. CNs are found industrially in mining/smelting, in metal processing and electroplating, in pesticides, in paints and varnishes as well as in crude oil and coal. In these industries, CNs are a problem substance, especially in waste water. Cyanides have a toxic effect when hydrocyanic acid is released through hydrolysis; the resulting hydrogen cyanide is immediately fatal due to paralysis of the respiratory center.

Cyanides are highly toxic to humans and animals, especially fish, but also algae. According to the Federal Environment Agency, free cyanide can kill trout at a concentration of 40 millionths of a gram (microgram) per liter.

Hydrogen cyanide

Prussic acid, or hydrogen cyanide, is a colorless, very toxic and fast-acting substance that smells like bitter almonds and prevents the combustion of oxygen in the cells by blocking respiratory enzymes. The effect of hydrocyanic acid thus leads to a kind of internal suffocation.

It should be mentioned that hydrogen cyanide is released during the combustion of polyurethanes, i.e. many of the plastics used. For this reason, even house fires can lead to fatal hydrogen cyanide poisoning. As a rule of thumb, around 1/3 of the toxic gases produced are carbon dioxide/carbon monoxide, 1/3 smoke gases and 1/3 hydrogen cyanide. Prussic acid poisoning also occurs in the metalworking and chemical industries, in pest control and in the sulphurization of organic materials. Furthermore, tobacco smoke sometimes contains considerable concentrations of prussic acid.


Nitrosamines are found in the human environment in many areas, including food, tobacco, cosmetics, latex consumer goods, etc. (exogenous exposure).

Nitrosamine formation is also possible in the human organism itself (endogenous exposure), as both the environment and food contain nitrosatable amines and nitrosating substances (e.g. nitrite or nitrogen oxides). These substances are “precursors” of nitrosamines, which can only be converted into the carcinogenic nitrosamines by chemical reaction with nitrite after they have passed from the product into the saliva or gastric juice of humans.

The carcinogenic effect is based on reactive metabolites of nitrosamines in the metabolism, which react with the genetic material DNA, damaging it and triggering tumors. Due to the low dosage, the latency period in humans is very long, making it difficult to prove a causal relationship.

A fundamentally harmless concentration can no more be determined for nitrosamines than for other carcinogenic substances. However, the suspected carcinogenic effect decreases as the amount ingested decreases. Today, in addition to tobacco smoke, the main sources of nitrosamines are spices, cured meat products and smoked bacon (breakfast bacon) to which nitrite curing salt has been added for the purpose of reddening and preservation.