Chemical Composition and Health Effects

Tobacco smoke from cigarettes, cigars, and pipes is composed of more than 4,000 different chemicals including carbon monoxide and formaldehyde. More than forty of these compounds are known to cause cancer in humans or animals, and many of them are strong irritants.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has concluded that exposure to tobacco smoke in the United States poses a serious and significant public health threat. New long-term studies estimate that about half of all regular cigarette smokers die of smoking-related diseases. However, controversy still surrounds the exact extent of such health effects.

Attempts have been made to study the effect of tobacco smoke on individuals exposed to other toxic chemicals. The risk of developing lung cancer among asbestos workers grows when they smoke an increasing number of cigarettes per day and their cumulative asbestos exposure increases. Cigarette-smoking asbestos workers tend to develop both restrictive lung disease (decreased lung capacities) and chronic obstructive lung disease, as compared to nonsmoking asbestos workers who have a tendency to develop only restrictive lung disease.

In recent years, there has been great concern that nonsmokers may also be at risk for some of the above health effects as a result of their exposure to the tobacco smoke (known as secondhand smoke) that occurs in various environments occupied by smokers.

The tobacco industry has denied the claim of such health hazards and has legally challenged the EPA over its secondhand smoke findings. In addition, some researchers argue that a number of the studies involve flawed data or the selective interpretation of findings. Many of these critics contend that the health risks involved with secondhand smoke are not as extensive as reported.

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