New Internationalist

Body blow

Issue 369

A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure,’ said Oscar Wilde. ‘It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?’ But tobacco’s dissatisfactions are more than psychological – here’s what it does to the body.


Nicotine gets the brain hooked – it is at least as addictive as heroin. Absorbed by blood vessels in the lungs, it hits the brain within 7 seconds of lighting up. Smokers report increased alertness and a feeling of calm – strange, as smoking speeds up the heart rate and raises blood pressure. Smokers are more at risk from stroke. A recent European study of smokers over 65 years of age found evidence of damage to critical mental abilities – reasoning, comprehension and memory – when compared to non-smokers of the same age group.


Carcinogenic chemicals condense on the mucous membrane as smoke enters the throat. Smoking causes 80 per cent of cancers of the oesophagus.


As blood flow to the skin decreases it turns leathery and prone to wrinkles. Tar stains fingers and nails yellow. Smokers are twice as likely to develop the shocking red and silvery rashes of psoriasis.

Reproductive organs

Women smokers suffer greater menstrual distress, higher rates of infertility and ectopic pregnancy and earlier onset of the menopause. Babies of smoking mothers are, on average, half a kilo lighter, thus affecting their chances of survival. Congenital abnormalities are more common.

Men produce less sperm and it has a greater tendency to show abnormalities. Blood vessel damage can also cause impotence.


Smoke 20 or more cigarettes a day and the risk of developing cataracts doubles. Macular degeneration, which affects the retina and causes blindness among the elderly, is 2-5 times more likely.


Mouth and tongue cancers are caused mainly by smoking: heavy smokers face a risk up to 30 times greater than non-smokers. Tobacco chewed or held in the mouth causes 150,000 deaths a year, mainly in Asia. Smelly breath, stained teeth and gum disease are common.


Nicotine speeds the heart up and makes it oxygen-hungry, while carbon monoxide in tobacco smoke drives oxygen out of red blood cells. Smokers have a 10-15 times greater risk of heart disease.


Before mass-produced cigarettes in the 20th century, lung cancer was rare. Today it's not and 90 per cent of people who get it can blame smoking as the cause. Medical treatment is palliative at best – only a small minority of lung cancer patients are alive five years after their diagnosis. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are also mainly smokers' diseases.

Breathlessness, coughing, wheezing, bloody spit, exhaustion as the heart works overtime to pump blood through damaged lungs: what a way to go.


Arteries start to harden and narrow, resulting in peripheral vascular disease. Walking becomes painful and severe cases develop gangrene – 90 per cent of peripheral vascular patients are smokers.

• Smoking also heightens the risk of cancers of the pancreas, bladder, kidney, blood and uterus.

• Studies have now proven that passive smoking also significantly increases the risk of many of the conditions listed above.

• Quitting makes sense – the risks of heart disease and various cancers associated with smoking decline significantly, often within a year of stopping.

Sources: John Crofton and David Simpson, Tobacco: A Global Threat, Macmillan, Oxford, 2002. Tobacco Industry’s Poster Child at

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This article was originally published in issue 369

New Internationalist Magazine issue 369
Issue 369

More articles from this issue

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  • Lost in transit

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  • Smoke gets in your eyes

    July 1, 2004

    Hemmed in by restrictions in many parts of the world, the tobacco empire nevertheless continues to expand. Dinyar Godrej explores the contradictions.

New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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