Understanding Tobacco

Learn more about tobacco

This page gives you general information on tobacco and provides links for further information and help including:

• A brief description of what tobacco is
• Information on the three major chemicals in tobacco smoke
• What the effects of tobacco use are, both immediate and long term
• What is tolerance and dependence
• Where to get help
• Brief information on tobacco use in Australia


What is tobacco?

Tobacco comes from the leaves of the tobacco plant (Nicotiana tabacum and Nicotiana rustica). The leaves are dried, cured, aged and combined with other ingredients to produce a range of products such as cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco, and wet and dry snuff.

Leaves from the tobacco plant contain nicotine. Nicotine is a stimulant drug. Stimulant drugs act on the central nervous system to speed up the messages travelling between the brain and the body.

Other names 

Cigs, butts, darts, smokes, cancer sticks, ciggies, rollies.

What’s in tobacco smoke? 

There are more than 4000 chemicals in tobacco smoke. Many of these chemicals are poisonous and at least 43 of them are carcinogenic (cause cancer).

The 3 major chemicals in tobacco smoke are:

• Nicotine—the chemical on which smokers become dependent
• Tar—which is released when a cigarette burns
• Carbon monoxide (CO)—a colourless, odourless and very toxic gas. Smokers typically have high levels of CO in the blood

How is it used?

Cigarettes are the most common way to smoke tobacco. Smoking tobacco in cigars and pipes is less popular. When tobacco is smoked, nicotine is absorbed through the membranes of the mouth and upper respiratory tract.

When tobacco is chewed (as chewing tobacco or wet snuff), the nicotine is absorbed through the membranes in the mouth. It can also be sniffed (dry snuff) and the nicotine is then absorbed through the lining of the nose.

‘Light’ or ‘low tar’ cigarettes 

Some people believe that smoking ‘light’ or ‘low tar’ cigarettes is less harmful than regular cigarettes. However, there is little difference between the amount of chemicals inhaled by people who smoke ‘light’ cigarettes and those who smoke regular ones.


Effects of tobacco

The effects of any drug (including tobacco) vary from person to person. How tobacco affects a person depends on many things including their size, weight and health, also whether the person is used to taking it. The effects of tobacco, as with any drug, also depend on the amount taken.

In Australia, tobacco use is responsible for approximately 15,000 deaths each year. In 2004–2005 approximately three-quarters of a million hospital bed-days were a result of tobacco use. [1]

There is no safe level of tobacco use. Use of any drug always carries some risk—even medications can produce unwanted side effects. It is important to be careful when taking any type of drug.

Immediate effects  

Low to moderate doses 

Some of the effects that may be experienced after smoking tobacco include:

• Initial stimulation, then reduction in activity of brain and nervous system
• Increased alertness and concentration
• Feelings of mild euphoria
• Feelings of relaxation
• Increased blood pressure and heart rate
• Decreased blood flow to fingers and toes
• Decreased skin temperature
• Bad breath
• Decreased appetite
• Dizziness
• Nausea, abdominal cramps and vomiting
• Headache
• Coughing, due to smoke irritation


Higher doses  

A high dose of nicotine can cause a person to overdose. This means that a person has taken more nicotine than their body can cope with. The effects of very large doses can include:

• An increase in the unpleasant effects
• Feeling faint
• Confusion
• Rapid decrease in blood pressure and breathing rate
• Seizures
• Respiratory arrest (stopping breathing) and death

60 mg of nicotine taken orally can be fatal for an adult. 

Long-term effects

Tar in cigarettes coats the lungs and can cause lung and throat cancer in smokers. It is also responsible for the yellow–brown staining on smokers’ fingers and teeth.

Carbon monoxide in cigarettes reduces the amount of oxygen available to the muscles, brain and blood. This means the whole body—especially the heart—must work harder. Over time this causes airways to narrow and blood pressure to rise, which can lead to heart attack and stroke.

High levels of carbon monoxide, together with nicotine, increase the risk of heart disease, hardening of the arteries and other circulatory problems.

Some of the long-term effects of smoking [2] that may be experienced include:

• Increased risk of stroke and brain damage
• Eye cataracts, macular degeneration, yellowing of whites of eyes
• Loss of sense of smell and taste
• Yellow teeth, tooth decay and bad breath
• Cancer of the nose, lip, tongue and mouth
• Possible hearing loss
• Laryngeal and pharyngeal cancers
• Contributes to osteoporosis
• Shortness of breath
• Coughing
• Chronic bronchitis
• Cancer
• Triggering asthma
• Emphysema
• Heart disease
• Blockages in blood supply that can lead to a heart attack
• High blood pressure (hypertension)
• Myeloid leukaemia, a cancer that affects bone marrow and organs that make blood
• Stomach and bladder cancers
• Stomach ulcers
• Decreased appetite
• Grey appearance
• Early wrinkles
• Slower healing wounds
• Damage to blood vessel walls
• Increased likelihood of back pain
• Increased susceptibility to infection
• Lower fertility and increased risk of miscarriage
• Irregular periods
• Early menopause
• Damaged sperm and reduced sperm
• Impotence

Other effects of tobacco use

Passive smoking 

Passive smoking occurs when a person who is not smoking breathes in the smoke from people who are smoking. Passive smoking can irritate the eyes and nose and cause a number of health problems such as heart disease and lung cancer. Tobacco smoke is especially harmful to babies and young children. 

Using tobacco with other drugs 

Nicotine can affect the way the body processes many different drugs. This can affect how these drugs work. For example, nicotine can decrease the effectiveness of benzodiazepines. Smoking while taking the contraceptive pill increases the risk of blood clots forming.

Check with your doctor or other health professional whether nicotine might affect any medications you are taking.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding

Read about the effects of tobacco use on pregnancy and breastfeeding.



Tolerance and dependence

People who use tobacco regularly tend to develop a tolerance to the effects of nicotine. This means they need to smoke more tobacco to get the same effect.

They may become dependent on nicotine. Dependence can be psychological, physical, or both. People who are dependent on nicotine find that using the drug becomes far more important than other activities in their life. They crave the drug and will find it very difficult to stop using it.

People who are psychologically dependent on nicotine may find they feel an urge to smoke when they are in specific surroundings or socialising with friends.

Physical dependence occurs when a person’s body adapts to the nicotine and gets used to functioning with the nicotine present.



Getting help

For information about quitting smoking, and to access support services, visit ACT Cancer Council

Use the Quit Now Calculator to find out how much you could save when you quit smoking.

What to do if you are concerned about your or someone else’s tobacco use

If you are concerned about your or someone else’s tobacco use, there is confidential help available by contacting Quitline. Alcohol, tobacco and other drug information & support is also available through the Alcohol and Drug Services, ACT Health 24-hr Helpline on (02) 6207 9977.

Information on alcohol, tobacco and other drug treatment and support services in the ACT

The ACT ATOD Services Directory communicates the diverse range of services and programs available in the ACT alcohol, tobacco and other drug (ATOD) sector. It aims to support workers to make referrals, increase cross and intra-sectoral knowledge, and foster collaborations. The Directory is available online at www.directory.atoda.org.au.



Tobacco use in Australia



There has been significant population level success to reduce the ACT’s daily smoking rates to about 11%. Unfortunately the remaining approximately 32,000 smokers in the ACT are disproportionately represented in some populations, such as:

People who work in health and community services: for example the ACT Workplace Tobacco Management Pilot Project found that just over 50% of participating workers were smokers [3] and

People who are clients / consumers of health and community services: for example the smoking rates for people accessing alcohol and drug, mental health and homelessness services can be up to 95% [4]

Tobacco and the law

Australian Capital Territory laws make it an offence to sell or supply tobacco products to people under 18 years of age. It is also illegal for anyone under 18 years to purchase tobacco products.

There are laws that regulate and restrict how tobacco products are advertised, promoted and packaged.

There are also laws and regulations that restrict smoking in public areas such as shopping centres, cafes and workplaces. The ACT also has laws that ban smoking in cars when children under the age of 16 years are present in the vehicle.

Please note: This information does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in this way. The information is correct at the time of publication. For information specific to your situation contact Legal Aid ACT

Australia’s drug policy

Australia’s national drug policy is based on harm minimisation. Strategies to minimise harm include encouraging people to avoid using a drug through to helping people to reduce the risk of harm if they do use a drug. It aims to reduce all types of drug-related harm to both the individual and the community.

This information has been adapted from the pamphlet How Drugs Affect You: Tobacco, produced by the Australian Drug Foundation. For single copies of this pamphlet, contact DrugInfo. Multiple copies are available from the ADF Bookshop.

Reproduced with permission, Australian Drug Foundation 2014


How successful are workplace-based interventions on helping smokers to quit?

A review of trials that compared the success rates of smokers in a work-based stop-smoking programs with those not involved in a work-based stop-smoking program found that ‘…programmes based on group behaviour therapy (eight trials; 1309 participants), on individual counselling (eight trials; 3516 participants), on medications (five trials; 1092 participants), and on several interventions combined (six trials; 5018 participants) helped people to stop smoking. The chances of stopping smoking using these methods are about the same in the workplace as they are in other settings. This review found that the following do not help people to stop smoking when delivered in the workplace: self-help methods, support from friends, family and workmates, relapse prevention programmes, environmental cues, or comprehensive programmes aimed at changing several high-risk behaviours. Results were mixed for incentives, with one high-quality trial finding a clear benefit for incentives while the remaining five did not’.

This Cochrane review provides encouraging evidence that the quit-smoking programs that work best in the community at large are effective when applied in workplace settings. Value would lie in more clearly identifying those occupational groups and workplace settings with elevated proportions of smokers, and targeting programs there.

Reference: Cahill, K & Lancaster, T 2014, ‘Workplace interventions for smoking cessation’, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, no. 2, art. no. CD003440, p. CD003440, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD003440.pub4/abstract .



[1] Collins D & Lapsley H 2008 The costs of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drug abuse to Australian society in 2004–05 [PDF: 500KB] (new window), Canberra: Department of Health and Ageing.

[2] Quit Victoria 2010 “Smoking and surgery” at http://www.quit.org.au/questions/frequently-asked-questions/how-does-smoking-affect-my-body/pages/smoking-and-surgery.aspx (accessed 22/4/2011).

[3] Lovett, R. (2011). Workplace Tobacco Management Project: Research Findings (Evaluation Report). Canberra: Alcohol Tobacco and Other Drug Association ACT (ATODA).

[4] Richter, K. (2006). Good and Bad Times for Treating Cigarettes Smoking in Drug Treatment. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. Vol 38, no.3. pp. 311-316




Last Updated 29 April 2014

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