Why are cigarettes more addictive nowadays?

Cigarettes contain far more than just nicotine, and it is the special – sometimes very strange – combinations of materials that enhance their addictive quality

Utra-orthodox men smoke cigarettes near the beach in Ashdod (photo credit: REUTERS)
Utra-orthodox men smoke cigarettes near the beach in Ashdod
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The main ingredient in cigarettes is tobacco – a plant that contains, among other things, a relatively high concentration of a chemical called nicotine, which is the active and addictive chemical in cigarettes. But it is a mistake to consider cigarettes a “natural” product. Since the 1950s, the tobacco companies, especially in the United States, have initiated countless scientific studies that have led to many changes in the cigarette in order to increase its biological and pharmacological effect. In recent years, as a result of legislative changes in the US and claims filed against the cigarette companies, manufacturers have been forced to publish documents on the studies of smoking. These changes also forced companies to disclose the ingredients that are added to cigarettes.
The tobacco companies argue that the components are designed to enhance the taste of the cigarette, but if you go through the list of ingredients you can see that many of the components added act to strengthen the cigarette’s overall effect.
Sugar mixture
It is claimed by manufacturers that these mixtures are added to change the taste to mask the bitterness of nicotine. However, when sugars are heated and burnt they emit a substance called acetaldehyde; cigarette smoke is rich in acetaldehyde.
Studies show that when acetaldehyde is absorbed with nicotine, nicotine has a more powerful effect. Controlled studies on rats (using an established animal model for addiction to tobacco) showed a mixture of nicotine with a small amount of acetaldehyde caused a alone. The rats consumed more nicotine compared to when they were given “pure” nicotine. The effect is strongest in young animals.
Licorice extract
Licorice is an herb with a typical flavor that also affects the taste of the cigarette. But one of the main components of the plant is a substance called glycyrrhizin, which also acts as a bronchodilator, i.e. a chemical that expands the tubes in the lungs, allowing more smoke to penetrate into the lungs and beyond, and therefore increasing the effect of smoking.
The importance of licorice and the extent of its use in modern cigarettes is proven by the fact that it occupies between 1% and 4% of the weight of the average cigarette, and that 90% of the world's licorice is used for the cigarette industry.
The chemicals di-ammonium phosphate and ammonium hydroxide release ammonia gas. Ammonium phosphate releases ammonia when heated.
Ammonium hydroxide is simply a solution of ammonia in water. What helps release ammonia into the smoke mixture? Since ammonia is chemically a base, it helps release other bases into their pure state.
An explanation is needed here: nicotine, like other natural substances (e.g. cocaine) is a base. Bases tend to react with acids to form salts. Indeed, in dry tobacco, the nicotine composition includes acid as “nicotinic acid.” When nicotine is in salt form it is more difficult for absorption into the body. The ammonia releases it by replacing it in the salt compound, and therefore allowing it to be absorbed and act more strongly and more quickly.
When the drug is working faster on the brain, dependence is developing more strongly. This is exactly the difference between crack and cocaine – the drug is the same drug, but the first contains baking soda (a base) that causes it to be much stronger. By the same token you could say that adding ammonia to tobacco changes the nicotine to “crack” nicotine, whose power is much stronger than normal nicotine.
Cocoa and cocoa products
Even this seemingly innocent material, apparently designed to improve the taste, also has a pharmacological chemical that affects the lungs: theobromine.
Theobromine has a dual effect on the human body; it expands the bronchial tubes, just like the material in licorice (in fact this is its medicinal use), and can also act as a powerful cough suppressant (a study in 2004 found that it was stronger than codeine – the active ingredient in cough syrups) by inhibiting the activity of the vagus nerve.
In other words, adding cocoa to cigarettes suppresses the body's natural response to smoke – coughing – and thus enables the smoker to feel healthy and hold the smoke for longer without irritation or the need to cough. Indirectly, this also increases the effect of nicotine on the body, by increasing the feeling of respiratory health, so that one can smoke for longer and thus increase the absorption of nicotine from the lungs into the blood.
Natural and artificial flavors
The tobacco companies do not publish individual components whose concentration in a cigarette is less than 0.1%, but instead collectively mark all other ingredients they add under this name. This includes a long list of chemicals, and as we have seen it is likely that the activity of some is not so innocent and does not only cause a change in taste or smell, but also has a pharmacological activity on the body: a book recently published in the US, based on hundreds of documents from US tobacco companies that were forcibly published, found that in addition to all of the above, they add a substance called levulinic acid that increases the binding of nicotine to receptors in the brain.
THUS, TOBACCO cigarettes contain a mixture of many substances, in addition to tobacco, that operate on many aspects to strengthen the biological addictive effects of cigarettes. They enhance the activity of nicotine, increase its concentration, shorten the time it takes for it to become available, expand the airways and inhibit the cough reflex. These ingredients were added to the mix after a long process of years of research and scientific development initiated by the cigarette companies.
In other words, cigarettes are an adapted product (in the negative sense of the word), while exploiting research tools and scientific knowledge to be stronger and more addictive than in its natural state. New studies show that 10-25% of people will develop symptoms of cigarette addiction after smoking even just one cigarette.
Given the many health dangers of smoking and the high chances of developing addiction, which the tobacco companies have apparently acted to further increase with the means mentioned above, the bottom line is that it is highly recommended to not try smoking – even once. ■
The writer (PhD) is an expert in science education and has degrees in chemistry and neuroscience. This article was written under the auspices of the Davidson Institute of Science Education.