Everyone’s heard about the dangers of smoking, but very few people understand the mechanisms that make it so dangerous.
Sure, tobacco may come from a plant, but it’s much more harmful that it appears to be.
In fact, the plant was responsible for more than 100 million deaths worldwide in the 20th Century and the World Health Organisation estimates that continued tobacco used could cause around a billion deaths by the end of the 21st Century (1).
The Dangers of Cigarettes
Tobacco smoke contains over 7,000 chemicals, 250 of which are incredibly harmful; like cyanide, carbon monoxide, and ammonia (2).
69 of these chemicals are known carcinogens, including:
- Aromatic amines
- Beryllium (a toxic metal)
- 1,3–Butadiene (a hazardous gas)
- Cadmium (a toxic metal)
- Chromium (a metallic element)
- Ethylene oxide
- Nickel (a metallic element)
- Polonium-210 (a radioactive chemical element)
- Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
- Tobacco-specific nitrosamines
- Vinyl chloride
Smoking doesn’t just harm your lungs, it also affects every organ and system in your body. It’s currently the leading cause of cancers of the lung, esophagus, larynx, mouth, throat, kidney, bladder, liver, pancreas, stomach, cervix, colon, and rectum, as well as acute myeloid leukemia.
Cigarettes are also linked to:
- Heart disease
- Aortic aneurysm
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Age-related macular degeneration
Poisons found in cigarette smoke cause inflammation and weaken the immune system, making it harder for your body to kill cancer cells. These poisons can also damage cellular DNA (3).This allows cancer to thrive and begin to take over your body.
In the last 50 years, a smoker’s risk of developing lung cancer has increased even though smokers are consuming fewer cigarettes than they did in the past. Cancers caused by cigarettes have also evolved as the formula and growing methods used by tobacco companies have changed through time.
Tobacco’s Hidden Secret
If you paid attention to the list of carcinogens above, you may have noticed Polonium-210, a radioactive compound that emits alpha radiation (4).
Due to nuclear and coal-fired power industries, trace amounts of the chemical are present in the environment worldwide.
Polonium-210 becomes poisonous when it is breathed in, swallowed, or otherwise enters the body, such as through broken skin. Just a microgram is enough to kill someone outright.
Medical News Today reports that by mass, polonium-210 is one of the deadliest toxins, being roughly 250,000 times more toxic than hydrogen cyanide – the lethal dose of which is 250 milligrams.
Tobacco plants concentrate dangerous levels of the substance into their leaves, making people who smoke more likely to experience radiation poisoning (5).
The substance accumulates in the lungs of smokers and makes its way into the liver, kidneys, bone marrow, gastrointestinal tract and red blood cells, as well as reproductive organs.
Once in the body, polonium-210 can cause apoptosis in healthy cells as well as DNA damage, both which contribute to various cancers.
Why We’re Left In The Dark
1998’s Master Settlement Agreement revealed that the tobacco industry has been aware of the presence of a radioactive substance in tobacco as early as 1959 (6).
A 2012 study published journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research explained that the industry knows very well how dangerous their products are (7): “…[T]he industry was not only cognizant of the potential “cancerous growth” in the lungs of regular smokers but also did quantitative radiobiological calculations to estimate the long-term (25 years) lung radiation absorption dose (rad) of ionizing alpha particles emitted from the cigarette smoke. Our own calculations of lung rad of alpha particles match closely the rad estimated by the industry. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the industry’s and our estimate of long-term lung rad of alpha particles causes 120-138 lung cancer deaths per year per 1,000 regular smokers.”
The industry is also aware of measures that can be taken to protect their consumers, but these have not yet been implemented (8):”Acid wash was discovered in 1980 to be highly effectively in removing (210)Po from the tobacco leaves; however, the industry avoided its use for concerns that acid media would ionize nicotine converting it into a poorly absorbable form into the brain of smokers thus depriving them of the much sought after instant ‘nicotine kick’ sensation.”.
Granted, many large industries exploit their consumers, but none have done so on quite as large a scale as tobacco companies, as their products are the most avoidable cause of early death worldwide.
A 2010 review published in the journal Health Physics found that the associated collective radiation dose from smoking is “more than 36 times that to the workers at all the U.S. nuclear power plants, U.S. Department of Energy nuclear weapons facilities, and crews of all the vessels in the U.S. Nuclear Navy.” (9).
Additionally, the review outlined that people who had never smoked in their life were 20% and 50% less likely to die from radiation exposure.
Despite this knowledge, tobacco companies have pushed their products to medical professionals and even children throughout the last 50 years. Because they thrive on keeping their customers in the dark, cigarette companies are always quick to fight tobacco education in schools as well as propositions for clearer warnings labels on cigarette packaging.