What Is a Cigarette?

Cigarette in ashtray

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What Is a Cigarette?

A cigarette is a cylindrical roll of shredded or ground tobacco that is wrapped in paper or another substance that does not contain tobacco. To smoke a cigarette, the end is lit and the smoke is inhaled. Many manufactured cigarettes also have filters on one end that are intended to trap some of the toxic chemicals contained in cigarette smoke.

Smoking cigarettes can lead to nicotine addiction and has been linked to serious health risks including cancer, heart disease, stroke, and death. Even for those who don't smoke cigarettes, just being exposed to secondhand smoke can have serious health consequences.

What's in Cigarettes

Depending on the type of cigarette, the ingredients will vary somewhat. Commercially produced cigarettes manufactured by one of the Big Tobacco companies can and do contain hundreds of additives on top of the tobacco that's in the cigarettes.


Some additives are used as flavoring agents, but others, such as ammonia, are added to boost the effect that nicotine has on the body. Additives are also used to do things like keep the tobacco moist and extend shelf life.

In April 1994, five of the Big Tobacco companies in the United States provided the Department of Health and Human Services with a list of 599 potential additives used in manufacturing their cigarettes. They were required to do this because of a federal court ruling.

In June 2009, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act was passed, placing requirements on tobacco companies to report all ingredients used in cigarettes and other tobacco products. New products must be submitted for approval before going to market.

Hand-rolled or roll-your-own cigarettes use loose tobacco. They don't contain all of the same additives that traditional manufactured cigarettes do, but they are still hazardous to health.

Cigarette Smoke

Cigarette smoke is a complex mix of more than 7,000 chemicals. These chemicals can be formed or produced:

  • By the additives in the product itself
  • From pesticides that are used in the tobacco farming process
  • When those additives are heated and/or burned
  • When burning chemicals combine, producing yet more unique chemicals

To date, 250 poisonous chemicals have been identified in cigarette smoke as well as at least 69 carcinogens.

History of Cigarettes

The Maya may have been the first people to smoke tobacco in the Americas. Images of tobacco use have been found carved into stone that date to 600 to 900 CE. North American Indians have long smoked pipes filled with tobacco as part of religious ceremonies and medical purposes. Smoking was not a daily activity; rather, it was ritually filled with special meaning.

Early 1900s

Cigarette smoking became a popular activity with men in the early 1900s, but it wasn't until World War I and World War II that it really took off. Cigarette companies gave soldiers free cigarettes and marketed them to women back home as well. By 1950, the per person consumption of cigarettes was 2,000 per year.

Later 1900s

Later in the 1950s, however, concerns over the health effects of smoking were surfacing. In 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General published a report about the dangers of smoking. Not long after, Congress passed the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act, which said that every cigarette pack must have a warning label on its side stating, "Cigarettes may be hazardous to your health."


Today, cigarette smoking is on the wane in many parts of the world, but plenty of people still smoke with few, if any, legislative restrictions on them. It's likely that cigarette consumption will continue to decrease as more and more people understand the tremendous health hazards they pose.

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.

Types of Cigarettes

Manufactured cigarettes can come in different sizes, differing in length and circumference. Cigarettes may also be labeled as light, organic, all-natural, or non-additive. These labels may give the misperception that they are safer than other types of cigarettes. The terms "light," "low," and "mild" can no longer be used to market cigarettes in the United States without exception from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Menthol is a flavor that comes from mint and helps make cigarettes less harsh. It's the only flavor of cigarettes now allowed in the United States; all others have been banned as of 2009. However, in April 2021, the FDA revealed that it plans to ban menthol as a characterizing flavor in cigarettes.

There are other types of cigarettes, in addition to traditional manufactured cigarettes as well. While these are different, according to the American Cancer Society, there is no safe form of tobacco.

  • Roll-your-own: Hand-rolled cigarettes are made using loose tobacco and rolling paper. Because they are hand-rolled, they may not have a filter.
  • Clove: Clove cigarettes, also called kreteks, are from Indonesia. They are made from tobacco and cloves and are rolled in paper. As of 2009, clove cigarettes have been banned in the United States.
  • Bidis: Bidis are a type of cigarette from India and other southeast Asian countries that's made with loose tobacco rolled in a tendu or temburni leaf, which are native to Asia.

What Are E-Cigarettes?

Electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigarettes, are made with a liquid typically containing nicotine, chemicals, and other flavors that is heated eletronically to create an aerosol that is then inhaled. Unlike traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes don't contain tobacco, but they are still considered a tobacco product according to the FDA because they contain nicotine.

Impact of Cigarettes

While cigarette use is declining, it still impacts the health of many people around the world. As of 2019, approximately 34 million adults in the United States, or 14% of the adult population, smoked cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Smoking is the leading cause of premature death in the United States, according to a 2014 Surgeon General report from the Department of Health and Human Services. It's also estimated to cost more than $300 billion dollars annually in the United States, when considering healthcare-related costs and lost productivity.

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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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By Terry Martin
Terry Martin quit smoking after 26 years and is now an advocate for those seeking freedom from nicotine addiction.