In July 2021, the WHO (World Health Organisation) released a report stating that there are 1.3 billion tobacco users worldwide. And locally, they estimate there are currently 5.3 million active smokers in Malaysia.
A published finding from the MOH (Ministry of Health) details that in 2011 to 2015, the number of smokers has gone down from 23.1% to 22.8% respectively. This can be attributed to the government’s anti-smoking efforts, to realise the vision of Malaysia as a smoke-free nation by 2045.
The government’s approach of implementing anti-smoking policies (e.g. explicit warning messages on cigarette packs) and regulations that aim to reduce the risk of second-hand smoke exposure (by banning smoking in public spaces) seemed like one that was heeded by the nation.
BuBut what is less common in their approach is providing information about the main harmful component of cigarettes, which includes the composition and the actual combustible reaction.
A spark is all it needs
When a cigarette is lit up and combustion occurs, it can reach a burning point of up to 900-degrees Celsius. At that moment, up to 7,000 chemicals can be released from the smoke. And of those chemicals, 250 of them are known to be harmful.
Did you know: The highest combustion point of a cigarette can even potentially ignite diamonds.
That said, these chemicals are not only present in cigarettes. They can also be found in common household items such as batteries (cadmium, lead), gasoline (benzene, rubber cement), lighter fluid (butane), nail polish remover (acetone) and paint (chromium).
When these chemicals are ingested, or burned and breathed in, they can pose a risk to the human body and the surroundings. This is why certain household items such as batteries and gasoline have visible “do not burn” or “do not dispose as domestic waste” warnings on them.
Some sources believe that out of the 250 toxic chemicals, 50 of them can lead to not just lung cancer, but other cancers as well. In cigarette smoke, you’ll find common gasses such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and hydrogen cyanide in them, which are harmful too.
Cigar smoke also shares the same toxic and carcinogenic (cancer-causing) chemicals as cigarette smoke. Due to how they’re made and wrapped, cigars even have potentially higher concentrations of nitrogen, which can provide a stronger nicotine delivery.
Contrary to what some might believe, nicotine by itself does not cause cancer. But, it is an addictive chemical that keeps people hooked. Nicotine provides the user with an adrenaline and dopamine rush when inhaled.
Clearing the cigarette ‘air’
With combustion being the spark, some of the chemicals below either make smoking more addictive, or they’re the main causes of harm when ingested.
Additives can provide a smoother smoking experience. Some of the common additives in cigarettes come in the form of flavourings and menthol. Menthol provides a cooling sensation when inhaled, numbs the throat and reduces the harshness of the inhaled smoke.
The American FDA (Food and Drug Administration) also found that other additives like ammonia in cigarettes can optimise nicotine delivery, making it faster for the body to absorb nicotine.
Another common misconception is that ‘tar’ in cigarettes refers to road tar, but this is not true. Tar is an umbrella term in cigarettes, referring to the toxic smoke that is created when a cigarette is burned. When this toxic smoke is inhaled, the tar then forms a sticky layer that coats the lungs.
Tar contains most of the carcinogenic chemicals in it, and will lead to the damage of lungs, which can be commonly seen on cigarette packaging.
The rise of the alternatives
There’s also been an increase in the adoption of smoking alternatives such as e-cigarettes, vape, heat-not-burn (HNB) devices (also known as heated tobacco products) and others. These alternatives can be a less harmful option and because of them, there are less people smoking combustible cigarettes.
But, they do not completely negate the risks of smoking. For example, e-juices used in vaping devices can still contain nicotine (which can be addictive). And e-juices have more flavourings compared to traditional cigarettes too, which is enticing for younger folks.
Note: Nicotine can be vaporised at temperatures of (around 200 to 250-degrees Celsius), thus vapourisers such as e-cigs and vapes can deliver nicotine to smokers without burning.
HNB devices on the other hand, do not go through a burning process. Instead, HNB devices heat up tobacco sticks to a maximum of 350 degrees Celsius. By eliminating the combustion process, HNB devices release less toxins in its vapour as compared to cigarette smoke.
However, vaping and HNB’s long-term effects are yet to be studied extensively, and risks are still present for those who smoke.
Users of these smoking alternatives are still subject to chemical reactions from inhaling the vapours, but they’re generally recognised as less harmful options compared to traditional combustible cigarettes.
For example, officials from the United Kingdom and New Zealand view vaping as a less harmful way of delivering nicotine. It is also one of the ways to slowly get a person to quit smoking.
It can’t be denied that not smoking is the best choice. But for those who wish to continue, knowing the choices they are making and the risks they’re taking, allows them to make better and more informed decisions.
Featured Image Credit: Donny Jiang on Unsplash
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