Tobacco facts Tobacco. Range of products containing tobacco. © Australian Drug Foundation.

What is tobacco?

Effects of tobacco

Tolerance and dependence

Getting help

Tobacco in Australia

What is tobacco?

Tobacco comes from the leaves of the tobacco plant (Nicotiana tabacum and Nicotiana rustica). The leaves are dried, cured, aged and combined with other ingredients to produce a range of products such as cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco, and wet and dry snuff.

Leaves from the tobacco plant contain nicotine. Nicotine is a stimulant drug. Stimulant drugs act on the central nervous system to speed up the messages travelling between the brain and the body.

Other names

Cigs, fags, butts, darts, smokes, cancer sticks, ciggies, rollies.

What’s in tobacco smoke?

There are more than 4000 chemicals in tobacco smoke. Many of these chemicals are poisonous and at least 43 of them are carcinogenic (cause cancer).

The three major chemicals in tobacco smoke are:

  • Nicotine—the chemical on which smokers become dependent.
  • Tar—which is released when a cigarette burns.
  • Carbon monoxide (CO)—a colourless, odourless and very toxic gas. Smokers typically have high levels of CO in the blood.

How is it used?

Cigarettes are the most common way to smoke tobacco. Smoking tobacco in cigars and pipes is less popular. When tobacco is smoked, nicotine is absorbed through the membranes of the mouth and upper respiratory tract.

When tobacco is chewed (as chewing tobacco or wet snuff), the nicotine is absorbed through the membranes in the mouth. It can also be sniffed (dry snuff) and the nicotine is then absorbed through the lining of the nose.

"Light" or "low tar" cigarettes

Some people believe that smoking "light" or "low tar" cigarettes is less harmful than regular cigarettes. However, there is little difference between the amount of chemicals inhaled by people who smoke “light” cigarettes and those who smoke regular ones.

Effects of tobacco

The effects of any drug (including tobacco) vary from person to person. How tobacco affects a person depends on many things including their size, weight and health, also whether the person is used to taking it. The effects of tobacco, as with any drug, also depend on the amount taken.

In Australia, tobacco use is responsible for approximately 15,000 deaths each year. In 2004–2005 approximately three-quarters of a million hospital bed-days were a result of tobacco use. (Collins & Lapsley, 2008)

There is no safe level of tobacco use. Use of any drug always carries some risk—even medications can produce unwanted side effects. It is important to be careful when taking any type of drug.

Immediate effects

Low to moderate doses

Some of the effects that may be experienced after smoking tobacco include:

  • initial stimulation, then reduction in activity of brain and nervous system
  • increased alertness and concentration
  • feelings of mild euphoria
  • feelings of relaxation
  • increased blood pressure and heart rate
  • decreased blood flow to fingers and toes
  • decreased skin temperature
  • bad breath
  • decreased appetite
  • dizziness
  • nausea, abdominal cramps and vomiting
  • headache
  • coughing, due to smoke irritation.

Higher doses

A high dose of nicotine can cause a person to overdose. This means that a person has taken more nicotine than their body can cope with. The effects of very large doses can include:

  • an increase in the unpleasant effects
  • feeling faint
  • confusion
  • rapid decrease in blood pressure and breathing rate
  • seizures
  • respiratory arrest (stopping breathing) and death.

60 mg of nicotine taken orally can be fatal for an adult.

Long-term effects

Tar in cigarettes coats the lungs and can cause lung and throat cancer in smokers. It is also responsible for the yellow–brown staining on smokers’ fingers and teeth.

Carbon monoxide in cigarettes reduces the amount of oxygen available to the muscles, brain and blood. This means the whole body—especially the heart—must work harder. Over time this causes airways to narrow and blood pressure to rise, which can lead to heart attack and stroke.

High levels of CO, together with nicotine, increase the risk of heart disease, hardening of the arteries and other circulatory problems.

Some of the long-term effects of smoking (Quit Victoria, 2010) that may be experienced include:

  • increased risk of stroke and brain damage
  • eye cataracts, macular degeneration, yellowing of whites of eyes
  • loss of sense of smell and taste
  • yellow teeth, tooth decay and bad breath
  • cancer of the nose, lip, tongue and mouth
  • possible hearing loss
  • laryngeal and pharyngeal cancers
  • contributes to osteoporosis
  • shortness of breath
  • coughing
  • chronic bronchitis
  • cancer
  • triggering asthma
  • emphysema
  • heart disease
  • blockages in blood supply that can lead to a heart attack
  • high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • myeloid leukaemia, a cancer that affects bone marrow and organs that make blood
  • stomach and bladder cancers
  • stomach ulcers
  • decreased appetite
  • grey appearance
  • early wrinkles
  • slower healing wounds
  • damage to blood vessel walls
  • increased likelihood of back pain
  • increased susceptibility to infection
  • lower fertility and increased risk of miscarriage
  • irregular periods
  • early menopause
  • damaged sperm and reduced sperm
  • impotence.

Other effects of tobacco use

Passive smoking

Passive smoking occurs when a person who is not smoking breathes in the smoke from people who are smoking. Passive smoking can irritate the eyes and nose and cause a number of health problems such as heart disease and lung cancer. Tobacco smoke is especially harmful to babies and young children.

Using tobacco with other drugs

Nicotine can affect the way the body processes many different drugs. This can affect how these drugs work. For example, nicotine can decrease the effectiveness of benzodiazepines. Smoking while taking the contraceptive pill increases the risk of blood clots forming.

Check with your doctor or other health professional whether nicotine might affect any medications you are taking.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding

Read about the effects of tobacco use on pregnancy and breastfeeding

Tolerance and dependence

People who use tobacco regularly tend to develop a tolerance to the effects of nicotine. This means they need to smoke more tobacco to get the same effect.

They may become dependent on nicotine. Dependence can be psychological, physical, or both. People who are dependent on nicotine find that using the drug becomes far more important than other activities in their life. They crave the drug and will find it very difficult to stop using it.

People who are psychologically dependent on nicotine may find they feel an urge to smoke when they are in specific surroundings or socialising with friends.

Physical dependence occurs when a person’s body adapts to the nicotine and gets used to functioning with the nicotine present.

Getting help

For information about quitting smoking, and to access support services, visit Quit Victoria.

Click on the button below to use the Quit Now Calculator to find out how much you could save when you quit smoking.

QuitNow Online Calculator

What to do if you are concerned about someone's tobacco use

If you are concerned about someone else’s tobacco use, there is confidential help available. Contact Quitline or an alcohol and drug information service in your state or territory.

Tobacco use in Australia


According to the 2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey report, in 2010, 1 in 6 (15.1%) Australians aged over 14 years smoked daily.

For more drug statistics about the use of tobacco in Australia, see our Quick statistics page.

Tobacco and the law

Federal and state laws make it an offence to sell or supply tobacco products to people under 18 years of age. It is also illegal for anyone under 18 years to purchase tobacco products.

There are laws that regulate and restrict how tobacco products are advertised, promoted and packaged.

There are also laws and regulations that restrict smoking in public areas such as shopping centres, cafes and workplaces. Most states and territories have laws that ban smoking in cars with children.

Please note: This information does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in this way. The information is correct at the time of publication. For information specific to your situation contact a legal aid service in your state or territory.

Read more about drugs and the law.

Australia's drug policy

Australia’s national drug policy is based on harm minimisation. Strategies to minimise harm include encouraging people to avoid using a drug through to helping people to reduce the risk of harm if they do use a drug. It aims to reduce all types of drug-related harm to both the individual and the community.


Collins D & Lapsley H 2008 The costs of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drug abuse to Australian society in 2004–05 [PDF: 500KB] (new window), Canberra: Department of Health and Ageing.

Quit Victoria 2010 “Smoking and surgery” at (accessed 22/4/2011).