The Sneaky Role of Some Additives in Cigarettes

Close up of male hand taking a cigarette from pack

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As of Dec. 20, 2019, the new legal age limit is 21 years old for purchasing cigarettes, cigars, or any other tobacco products in the U.S.

Tobacco companies use additives to make the effects of nicotine more impactful and to make cigarette smoking more appealing to consumers. Unfortunately, these additives also drastically increase the health risks related to cigarette smoking.

The use of these additives sheds a light on the strategies tobacco companies use to appeal to certain groups of people, including especially vulnerable groups like adolescents.

Making Cigarettes More Addictive

Tobacco companies use some additives to flavor cigarettes and to make the smoke less irritating to a person's throat. But research shows that the additives aren't just affecting a person's smoking experience; they drastically increase health risks associated with cigarette smoking.

Ammonia Compounds

Tobacco companies add ammonia compounds to cigarettes during the manufacturing process in order to mask the harshness of tobacco. It creates a "smoother" feeling when you inhale cigarette smoke.

However, ammonia compounds create a chemical reaction with nicotine, which creates something called free-based nicotine. Free-based nicotine is delivered to the brain at a much faster rate than normal nicotine, resulting in a more immediate and more intense reaction.

Absorbing nicotine faster means that a person is more likely to become dependent on it, which increases the risk of nicotine addiction.

Added Sugars

Tobacco companies add sugars into cigarettes to make them taste better, removing the bitter flavor of cigarette smoke. Adding sugar also reduces the pH of cigarette smoke, which makes the smoke less harsh and less irritating and makes smoking more appealing, especially to those who are new to smoking.

However, when these added sugars burn after you light up a cigarette, they create additional toxic compounds called aldehydes. These compounds include formaldehyde, acrolein, and acetaldehyde, which are known to contribute to increased risks of cardiac disease, pulmonary disease, and cancers of the lungs and bladder.

Aldehydes are also linked with increasing the potency of nicotine, which makes cigarette smoking more addictive.

Researchers believe that acetaldehyde and nicotine together also make the brain more receptive to nicotine, so it absorbs nicotine at a much faster rate.

Targeting Specific Groups

Research shows that young people are specifically targeted by certain additives in cigarettes. By making cigarettes easier to smoke—by making the taste, smell, and experience more appealing—tobacco companies are purposefully appealing to young people.

Menthol

Menthol is derived from peppermint and is added to some cigarettes to give a cooling sensation when a person inhales the smoke.

Since menthol makes cigarette smoke feel less irritating in your throat, it's widely believed that tobacco companies use this additive to attract younger people to pick up the habit. Menthol may even be in cigarettes that are not marketed as "menthol cigarettes."

Research has shown that people who smoke menthol cigarettes have a more difficult time quitting.

In addition to targeting young people, tobacco companies have a history of advertising their products in low-income and racial minority neighborhoods—specifically in Black neighborhoods. Young people and Black Americans are more likely to smoke menthol cigarettes than other groups.

Flavorings

Flavors like licorice or chocolate might also be added to make cigarettes taste better. These flavoring additives are particularly attractive to adolescents who are more likely to purchase flavored tobacco.

Tobacco companies have also used research showing that women prefer flavors like spearmint and coconut to their advantage—they incorporate these types of flavors into cigarettes to appeal to female consumers.

Tobacco companies strategically use the preferences of certain key demographics to target them for cigarette sales.

When burned, some of these flavorings produce additional toxins in cigarette smoke, including carcinogens, which increase a person's risk of developing cancer as a result of smoking.

In addition, some of the sweeteners—like chocolate—contain bronchodilators. Bronchodilators expand the lungs so that cigarette smoke is inhaled more deeply but it feels less harsh.

Levulinic Acid

Levulinic acid is a type of organic salt that also masks the harsh quality of nicotine and prevents a person's throat from feeling irritated while smoking.

Levulnic acid also "desensitizes" the upper respiratory tract, which allows cigarette smoke to be inhaled more deeply. It also makes the brain more receptive to nicotine, which increases the risk of addiction.

Mental Health Effects

There is a lot of information about the physical effects of smoking, such as heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and even premature death.

Smoking has negative mental health effects as well, and many of the additives in cigarettes make it much more likely for someone to become addicted to nicotine.

Smoking is linked with poor mental health. People who smoke cigarettes tend to have higher levels of anxiety and depression.

Adolescents are found to be the most at-risk for nicotine addiction since their brains are still developing.

It's estimated that three out of four teenage smokers will continue smoking into adulthood, even if they want to quit.

Research has linked smoking during adolescence with increased impulsivity and mood disorders. Young people are also more at risk of depression and might be more at risk of developing a dependence on other drugs if they have a dependence on nicotine.

Dependence on nicotine can lead to symptoms of withdrawal if a person stops smoking. Withdrawal includes many physical and mental effects such as:

Get Help to Quit Smoking

If you want to quit smoking, you have options that can help. Talk to your doctor about what they recommend.

They might suggest nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), which comes in various forms (including patches, lozenges, gum) and administers small doses of nicotine without the other toxic additives that are in cigarettes. NRT can help ween you off of smoking.

It can be tough to quit smoking but know that you're not alone. Attending a support group either in person or online can help you stay motivated to quit.

You can even download a quit smoking app on your phone. Having other people and support systems to hold you accountable for your goal of staying smoke-free can make a huge difference.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

There are many additives cigarette companies put into cigarettes, and they put people at risk for many physical and mental health consequences. To avoid the effects of these toxic additives, talk to your doctor about the best way for you to quit smoking. It may feel challenging at first, but prioritizing your physical and mental health can motivate you to be smoke-free.

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14 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
  • American Cancer Society. Is any type of smoking safe? Updated November 2019.

  • University of California, San Francisco. Legacy Tobacco Documents. Genetic Engineering High Nicotine Plots.