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What is tobacco?

Tobacco is made by drying leaves from tobacco plants.

Nicotine is the main chemical in tobacco. It is:

  • toxic
  • highly addictive
  • a stimulant — this means it speeds up the messages that travel between your brain and your body

Nicotine is a dangerous chemical for a number of reasons. Read more about nicotine.

Tobacco makers add other ingredients to tobacco when they process it for cigarettes, cigars and other products. Some ingredients are added for flavour to make smoking more pleasant.

Read about additives in cigarettes. You can also see the ingredients of cigarettes sold in Australia by 3 tobacco companies.

What is smoking?

When people smoke tobacco, they burn it so they can breathe it in or taste the smoke.

People smoke tobacco in different ways:

  • Cigarettes
    Tobacco wrapped in a roll of paper. You can buy cigarettes ready-made or you can roll your own. When you smoke a cigarette, you breathe in the smoke.
  • Cigars
    Tobacco wrapped in a tobacco leaf or paper made from tobacco pulp.
  • Pipes
    Loose-leaf tobacco smoked in a pipe.

Tobacco smoking is the largest preventable cause of death and disease in Australia. It:

  • affects your health, even if you don’t breathe in the smoke
  • affects the people around you through your second-hand smoke

Did you know?

  • Tobacco can also be chewed, sucked, dissolved or inhaled through the mouth or nose using other forms of tobacco often known as chewing tobacco, oral tobacco, snuff or snus. It's illegal to commercially import or sell these products in Australia.
  • Smoking can also mean the smoking of marijuana , opium and other drugs and substances.

Why do people take up smoking?

Most people take up smoking as a teenager, and there are many reasons for this. For example, they may be influenced by the people around them who smoke (e.g. their family and friends). They may also be exposed to the tobacco advertising and promotion. For example, young people who are exposed to images of smoking in movies are more likely to smoke. Find out more about why people take up smoking.

Many people also find it hard to quit tobacco smoking, and one of the reasons for this is because nicotine is so addictive. Research shows that:

  • first-time smokers are more likely to become addicted compared to first‑time users of cocaine or alcohol
  • if you start smoking as a teenager, you are more likely to become a life-long smoker compared to those who start as an adult

Find out more about quitting smoking.

Did you know?

Research has shown that over time, tobacco companies have made cigarettes:

  • more addictive by increasing nicotine levels and enhancing its impact when inhaled
  • more attractive to children and young people by adding flavourings, menthol and other chemicals

Chemicals in tobacco smoke

Tobacco smoke contains many chemicals that are harmful to smokers and non-smokers. Breathing even small amounts of tobacco smoke can be harmful.

Of the more than 7,000 chemicals in tobacco smoke, at least 250 are known to be harmful, including hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, and ammonia.

Among the 250 known harmful chemicals in tobacco smoke, at least 69 can cause cancer. Find out more about how smoking affects your health.

Last updated: 
8 April 2019