When nicotine enters the body, it initially causes the adrenal glands to release a hormone called epinephrine (adrenaline). The rush of adrenaline stimulates the body and causes an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing.
Most of the harm to the body is not from the nicotine, but from other chemicals contained in tobacco or produced when burning it—including carbon monoxide, tar, formaldehyde, cyanide, and ammonia. Tobacco use harms every organ in the body and can cause many problems. The health effects of smokeless tobacco are somewhat different from those of smoked tobacco. But for both types of tobacco products, the risks are real.
Smoking Tobacco Effects
- Cancer. Tobacco use can be blamed for about one-third of all cancer deaths, including 90% of lung cancer cases. Tobacco use is also linked with cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, cervix, kidney, ureter, bladder, and bone marrow (leukemia).
- Lung or respiratory problems. Bronchitis (swelling of the air passages to the lungs), emphysema (damage to the lungs), and pneumonia have been linked with smoking.
- Heart disease. Smoking increases the risk for stroke, heart attack, vascular disease (diseases that affect the circulation of blood through the body), and aneurysm (a balloon-like bulge in an artery that can rupture and cause death).
- Cataracts (an eye condition). People who smoke can experience this clouding of the eye, which causes blurred vision.
- Loss of sense of smell and taste.
- Lowered lung capacity. People who smoke can’t exercise or play sports for as long as they once did.
- Aging skin and teeth. After smoking for a long time, people find that their skin ages faster and their teeth discolor or turn brown.
- Harm to the unborn baby of a pregnant woman who smokes. Pregnant women who smoke are at increased risk for delivering their baby early or suffering a miscarriage, still birth, or experiencing other problems with their pregnancy. Smoking by pregnant women also may be associated with learning and behavior problems in children.
- Accidental death from fires. Smoking is the leading cause of fire-related deaths—more than 600 deaths each year.6
For people who do not smoke, secondhand smoke—exposure to exhaled smoke and smoke given off by the burning end of tobacco products—increases the risk for many diseases. Each year, an estimated 58 million Americans are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke and more than 41,000 nonsmokers die from diseases caused by secondhand smoke exposure.3
Inhaling secondhand smoke increases a person’s risk for developing:
- Heart disease. Secondhand smoke increases the risk for heart disease by 25% to 30%. It is estimated to contribute to as many as 34,000 deaths related to heart disease.4
- Lung cancer. People exposed to secondhand smoke increase their risk for lung cancer by 20% to 30%. About 7,300 lung cancer deaths occur per year among people who do not smoke.5
- Lung problems. Secondhand smoke causes breathing problems in people who do not smoke, like coughing, phlegm, and lungs not working as well as they should.
- Health problems for children. Children exposed to secondhand smoke are at an increased risk for sudden infant death syndrome, lung infections, ear problems, and more severe asthma.
Smokeless Tobacco Effects
People who use smokeless tobacco products, such as chewing tobacco, snuff, or dip, are at risk for several health problems:
- Tooth decay, gum problems, and mouth sores. Smokeless tobacco increases the chance of getting cavities, gum disease, and sores in the mouth that can make eating and drinking painful.
- Cancer. Close to 30 chemicals in smokeless tobacco have been found to cause cancer. People who use smokeless tobacco are at increased risk for oral cancer (cancers of the mouth, lip, tongue, and pharynx) as well as esophageal and pancreatic cancers.
- Other potential health problems. Recent research shows smokeless tobacco may play a role in causing heart disease and stroke.
3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Health Consequences of Smoking—50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2014 [accessed 2015 Oct 9].
4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, Department of Health and Human Services. Secondhand Smoke Facts. Updated August 2015. http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/secondhand_smoke/general_facts/index.htm
5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, Department of Health and Human Services. Secondhand Smoke Facts. Updated August 2015. http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/secondhand_smoke/general_facts/index.htm
6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, Department of Health and Human Services. Smoking and Tobacco Use. Tobacco-Related Mortality. Updated August 2015. http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/health_effects/tobacco_related_mortality/