Student Science: Smoking

What does smoking actually do to your body?

by Maria Mellor

Around 42 per cent of adults claim to have smoked before, with two-thirds of smokers starting before the age of 18. 21 per cent of adults in Wales are regular smokers and we’re always hearing about how it will give you cancer, but what do we actually know about the effects of smoking on the body?

First let’s look at the ingredients in the average cigarette. There’s the paper, the filter and the tobacco leaves themselves. Cigarettes also contain ‘fillers’ which are made from other parts of the tobacco plant that usually go to waste mixed with water, flavourings and various additives. When burned, cigarettes produce a smoke made up of nicotine, ‘tar’, benzene and benzo(a)pyrene, and gases such as carbon monoxide, ammonia, dimethylnitrosamine, formaldehyde, hydrogen cyanide and acrolein. The ‘tar’ seems to be what anti-smoking campaigners focus on, as in its condensed form it is a sticky brown substance that stains smokers’ fingers and teeth yellow-brown. There are regulations as to the amount of tar that can be in a cigarette, and there are such things as low tar cigarettes, however cigarette companies are no longer allowed to advertise this.

Smoking is appealing to people because of the effects of nicotine. Nicotine supposedly calms you down, but in actual fact it is a highly addictive stimulant that causes a short-term increase in blood pressure and heart rate. This combines with the effects of the carbon monoxide which reduces the amount of oxygen the blood can carry to create an imbalance in the body’s demand for oxygen and the amount that the blood is able to supply. Smoking can therefore cause a feeling of lightheadedness.

While notices on cigarette packets never fail to remind us that ‘smoking kills’, they don’t tell us exactly how they kill us. Any smoker will probably tell you that the biggest killer is lung cancer – understandably as the most noticeable effect of smoking on a person’s health is their reduced lung capacity. In actual fact smoking’s greatest killer is cardiovascular disease. According to the US Center for Disease Control, lung cancer is responsible for 28% of smoking related deaths while cardiovascular disease is accountable for 43%.

Cardiovascular disease is caused because of the effects of the nicotine. Blood pressure is raised, meaning that your heart has to work harder to push blood around your body. The heart becomes harder and thicker, meaning that it is less able to do its job and more likely to fail. As for cancer, it is believed that smoking causes cancer by constantly damaging the lining of the lungs.

Smoking affects the eyes as smokers are up to four times more likely to go blind in old age, it affects bones increasing the risk of osteoporosis. Cigarettes turn the skin yellow, and decrease a smoker’s appetite. We’re well aware that smoking when pregnant can be incredibly dangerous as chemicals are passed to the foetus through the bloodstream via the placenta. It increases the risk of stillbirth and cot death, and the child will be more susceptible to infections and health conditions such as asthma.

There are flavoured cigarettes such as menthol with a common misconception that they are in some way ‘better’ for you. Research has shown that in actual fact they could be worse for you – menthol smokers are 29 per cent more likely to be hospitalised for reasons relating to smoking. It is believed that menthol has an anaesthetising effect on the trachea, meaning that it’s more difficult to detect health problems.

Around half of all regular smokers will die due to negative health effects from their addiction. Nicotine is what makes people smoke and continue smoking, but it’s also a main cause of the dangers. It’s not just smoking itself that is a problem, but the fact that anyone around someone who smokes will also be breathing in nicotine, tar and all the other chemicals.

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