Drugs A to Z

Tobacco: Factsheet

  • tobacco
  • many used cigarettes
Year: Year 7–8, Year 9–10, Year 11–12
Targeted Drugs:

What are nicotine and tobacco?

Cigarettes are made from the dried and cured leaves of the tobacco plant. Nicotine is the key addictive drug in tobacco. Like heroin and cocaine, nicotine changes the way the brain works and causes cravings for more nicotine.

Nicotine can be found in:
  • Tailor-made manufactured cigarettes
  • Roll-your-own cigarettes
  • Cigars
  • Pipe tobacco
  • Water pipe tobacco (shisha, narghile)
  • Chop-chop (illegal loose rolling tobacco)
  • Herbal and spiced cigarettes
  • E-cigarettes.

What else do cigarettes contain?

Research shows that cigarette smoke contains more than 7 000 chemicals, many of which are harmful toxins. These include:

  • Carbon monoxide — this also comes out of car exhausts
  • Lead, mercury, chromium and cadmium — toxic metals
  • Hydrogen cyanide — used in larger doses in gas chambers
  • Ammonia — found in cleaning products and added to cigarettes to increase the nicotine hit
  • Polonium 210 — a radioactive substance.

Some of the toxins in cigarette affect the mouth, throat and lungs, while others travel in the bloodstream throughout the body. The longer a person smokes, and the more often they smoke, the greater their risk of developing diseases such as lung cancer.

How many young people have tried it?

Smoking rates among school students have fallen greatly since the 1980s. According to the 2017 Australian secondary schools' survey, 1 in 20 students (5%) aged 12–17 reported they had smoked in the previous week. 

What are the effects?

Even though smoking is legal, it doesn’t mean that it’s safe, or that it is less harmful than illegal drugs. In fact, smoking is responsible for more deaths than any other drug. Smoking is legal because it was already widely used and socially accepted before the health risks became understood. 

Effects of tobacco smoking may include:


  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Reduced oxygen to the brain and lungs
  • Bad breath
  • Stained teeth and fingers
  • Shortness of breath
  • Increased phlegm production
  • Persistent coughing
  • Constricted blood vessels.


  • Dependence (addiction)
  • Dental problems 
  • Premature aging
  • Reduced physical fitness
  • Reduced fertility
  • Respiratory (breathing) problems
  • Increased risk of heart disease (smokers are 2-4 times more at risk)
  • Lung disease (e.g., emphysema)
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer.

What are the effects of second-hand smoke?

Secondhand (passive) smoking occurs when people near a smoker breathe in the smoke. This is not safe and can have serious health effects including lung cancer and heart disease. 

Evidence Base

This factsheet was developed following expert review by researchers at the National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW. See detailed attachment for a list of sources for this information.