Buying Cigarettes
I came - I saw - I bought

What's Really in Your Cigarette?

There are lots of myths about cigarettes: that "lights" offer protection, for one, or that filters actually filter.

Yet another myth is that cigarettes are just tobacco rolled in paper. Nothing could be further from the truth. The cigarette is a surprisingly complex artifact, as we now know from the treasure trove of documents released in the course of litigation. The tobacco archives online at contain some 80 million pages of formerly secret industry documents, almost all of which were unavailable before the Big Tobacco trials of recent years. Access to these archives has improved over time, and all are now full-text searchable, meaning that anyone with an Internet connection can pull up all documents containing expressions such as "doubt is our product" or "friends in Congress."

What the documents also reveal is a witches' brew of ingredients used in cigarettes. A 1992 document drawn up by Covington & Burling, a leading tobacco law firm, lists 614 different additives in cigarettes. Here are some of the choicer items, along with poundages added to cigarettes in 1991:

Glycerol 24,910,166

Propylene glycol 22,803,628

Cocoa and cocoa shells 9,302,784

Licorice 8,140,074

Diammonium phosphate 6,065,511

Urea 2,376,000

Menthol 1,564,759

St. John's Bread 979,780

Chocolate 841,405

Potassium sorbate 296,984

Prune juice and concentrate 156,093

Levulinic acid 13,413

Angelica Root 5,128

Nutmeg powder and oil 2,359

Dandelion root solid extract 2,044

Twenty years later, the exact formulas of cigarettes on the market remain trade secrets, but the companies now publicly disclose the chemicals they add. On their websites, Philip Morris lists more than 100 different additives, Reynolds lists 158 and Lorillard lists 137. Many of these are flavorants; that is presumably why the list includes bergamot oil, fenugreek extract, geranium bourbon oil, ethyl vanillin, tangerine oil, sandalwood and something called "immortelle extract."

Under "c" alone we find cardamom oil, carob bean extract, cinnamon oil, coffee extract, coriander oil, corn syrup and an oil made from camomile flowers. Gone, apparently, are some that appear in earlier lists: "civet absolute," for example, which turns out to be a secretion from the anal gland of the civet cat, and castoreum, a comparable secretion from the Siberian beaver.

Some compounds are added for physiological effects. Menthol adds a cool, minty taste, for example, but also has anesthetic effects, helping starters start and smokers get a "medicinal" feeling. Sugars are added to produce a milder, more inhalable smoke-but also because, when burned, they generate acetaldehydes, boosting the addictive potency of the resulting smoke.

Nicotine per se isn't typically added, apart from what is already found in precision-bred and blended tobacco leaf, but ammonia is used in abundance-millions of pounds per year in fact-to push the nicotine molecule from a "bound" into a "free base" state, creating a kind of crack nicotine. Levulinic acid is similarly added to increase the efficiency of nicotine binding in the brain. Cocoa is added for aroma but also for its impact as a bronchodilator: Cocoa contains the alkaloid theobromine, which helps open up the lungs to "receive" smoke.

Of course, whenever you smoke a cigarette you are also smoking cigarette paper, which contains bleaches and glues and sometimes burn accelerants (typically sodium or potassium citrates). Chemicals are added to adjust the color of the ash or the optical qualities of the smoke.

The archives are also full of complaints from ordinary smokers finding oddities in their cigarettes: A 1994 Philip Morris document records contamination from rubber bands, machine belts and lubricants, ink and tax stamp solvents, glass fibers and plastics, and color stains "consistent with blood." Smokers also complain about finding bugs or worms, sometimes dead, sometimes alive.

Global consumption of cigarettes has now reached six trillion sticks a year, which turns out to be more than 300 million miles of cigarettes-enough to make a continuous chain from the Earth to the sun and back, with enough left over for a couple of side trips to Mars. On that long journey, smokers deserve to know exactly what's in their cigarettes, and why.

Published: Friday, August 31, 2012

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