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What are the effects of smoking and tobacco?

Within 10 seconds of your first puff, the toxic chemicals in tobacco smoke reach your brain, heart and other organs. Smoking harms almost every part of your body and increases your risk of many diseases. Smoking also affects how you look and feel, your finances and the people close to you.

What happens in your body

When you smoke, harmful chemicals enter your lungs and spread through your body. They can:

  • reach your brain, heart and other organs within 10 seconds of your first puff
  • go everywhere your blood flows, harming every part of your body

Even if you don’t inhale tobacco smoke, you still absorb harmful chemicals through the lining of your mouth.

How you become addicted

The nicotine in tobacco is highly addictive. It makes your brain release a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is a ‘feel good’ chemical that:

  • makes you feel happy
  • helps you to concentrate
  • gives you more energy

But this effect doesn’t last long.

As the nicotine levels in your body fade, your brain craves more dopamine. The longer you have been smoking, the more dopamine you need to feel good. You become dependent on nicotine.

Once you are dependent on nicotine, without it you will have withdrawal symptoms. You may find it difficult to concentrate or feel nervous, restless, irritable or anxious.

These two things — nicotine dependence and nicotine withdrawal — make you want to smoke more. You become addicted to tobacco.

How tobacco damages your body

The chemicals in tobacco smoke can damage your body in many ways. For example:

  • Nicotine narrows your veins and arteries. This can
    • damage your heart by forcing it to work faster and harder
    • slow your blood and reduce oxygen to your feet and hands.
  • Carbon monoxide deprives your heart of the oxygen it needs to pump blood around your body. Over time, your airways swell up and let less air into your lungs.
  • Tar is a sticky substance that coats your lungs like soot in a chimney.
  • Phenols paralyse and kill the hair-like cells in your airways. These cells sweep clean the lining of your airways and protect them against infections.
  • Tiny particles in tobacco smoke irritate your throat and lungs and cause ‘smoker’s cough’. This makes you produce more mucus and damages lung tissue.
  • Ammonia and formaldehyde irritate your eyes, nose and throat.
  • Cancer-causing chemicals make your cells grow too fast or abnormally. This can result in cancer cells.

How tobacco affects the way you look

Smoking tobacco can:

  • cause yellow-brown stains on your fingers, tongue and teeth
  • increase your risk of tooth loss and bad breath
  • make your skin saggy and give you early wrinkles
  • make your hair lose its natural shine

Health effects

If you smoke, you:

  • reduce your life expectancy and your quality of life
  • increase your risk of many conditions and diseases as well as of dying prematurely

It can be a long time before smokers get a smoking-related condition or disease. Because of this, some people believe it won’t happen to them.

In fact, up to ⅔ of long term smokers will:

  • die of a smoking-related disease
  • have their life cut short by about 10 years on average, compared to non-smokers

There is also growing evidence to suggest that smoking has a negative impact on mental health. For example, some studies show that smoking is associated with increased rates of anxiety, panic attacks, depression, suicide attempts and schizophrenia.

Some of the conditions and diseases that can be caused by smoking

    Did you know?

    Tobacco use is the one risk factor shared by 4 of the main categories of non-communicable disease. These include cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic lung disease and diabetes.

    • Cancer
      Smoking causes most lung cancers and can cause cancer almost anywhere on the body. This includes the lips, tongue, mouth, nose, oesophagus, throat, voice box, stomach, liver, kidney, pancreas, bladder, blood, cervix, vulva, penis and anus.
    • Breathing problems and chronic respiratory conditions
      Smoking is the main cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a serious, progressive and disabling condition that limits airflow in the lungs. Active smoking also worsens asthma in active smokers and is associated with an increased risk for asthma in adolescents and adults.
    • Heart disease, stroke and blood circulation problems
      Smoking is major cause of cardiovascular disease, such as heart disease and stroke. Smoking increases the risk of blood clots, which block blood flow to the heart, brain or legs. Some smokers end up having their limbs amputated due to blood circulation problems caused by smoking.
    • Diabetes
      Smoking causes type 2 diabetes, with the risk of developing diabetes 30 to 40% higher for active smokers than non-smokers. Smoking may also worsen some of the health conditions related to type 1 diabetes, such as kidney disease.
    • Infections
      Smoking weakens your immune system so you’re more likely to get bacterial and viral infections.
    • Dental problems
      Smoking increase the risk of gum diseases, tooth loss and tooth sensitivity. Once a person has gum damage, smoking also makes it harder for their gums to heal.
    • Hearing loss
      Smoking reduces blood flow to the inner ear. Smokers may also lose their hearing earlier than a non-smoker.
    • Vision loss
      Smoking damages the eye and can lead to macular degeneration — the main cause of blindness in Australia.
    • Fertility problems
      Smoking can make it more difficult to fall pregnant and affect sperm quality. Find out more about smoking and tobacco and pregnancy.
    • Osteoporosis and menopause
      Smoking is a risk factor for osteoporosis and in women, may result in early menopause compared to a non-smoker.

    What the numbers say

    • The most recent available estimates show that almost 19,000 Australians died from tobacco use in 2011. This equates to a tobacco-related death every 28 minutes.
    • Up to ⅔ of deaths in current smokers can be attributed to smoking and current smokers are estimated to die an average of 10 years earlier than non-smokers.

    Effects on those around you

    As a smoker, you can affect the health of other people when they breathe in your second-hand smoke. This means they’re breathing in the same toxic and cancer-causing chemicals that you are.

    Find out about the health risks of passive smoking.

    Financial effects

    Smoking is expensive. To work out how much you could save if you stopped smoking, try the I Can Quit calculator . The numbers add up over a year.

    If you smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, you could be spending more than $10,000 a year on cigarettes.

    Reducing the effects

    There is no safe level of smoking.

    To reduce your risk, the best option is to quit smoking. You’ll feel the health benefits almost straight away.

    Last updated: 
    8 April 2019

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