Cigarettes: Personal Freedom or Environmental Contaminant?

by Jarrett Kelley on April 24, 2014

Public health initiatives are often part of politician’s platforms, but one public health problem is never addressed, tobacco. Tobacco has been a part of American agriculture since colonial times. President Obama himself is a former smoker, and tobacco is grown in great abundance in a number of states. Yet tobacco related disease is the number one killer of Americans, contributing to the death of nearly half a million people every year (Tobacco Use). The vast majority of lung cancer diagnoses come from smoking, aside from those exposed to asbestos during occupational work. Despite awareness campaigns and other government efforts to decrease the percentage of Americans who smoke, the rate has been steadily rising over the past half century. In addition to causing widespread damage throughout the individual consumer’s body, cigarette smoke contaminates our atmosphere and cigarette butts litter our soil.

Tobacco smoking is possibly the worst health habit one could acquire. Smoking is more detrimental to bodily processes than a poor diet, lack of sleep, or lack of exercise. Cigarettes contain over 4,700 chemical compounds of which 43 are known carcinogens (Nadakavukaren). These carcinogens not only affect lung tissue, but once absorbed they are shuttled throughout the body. Smokers are at a higher risk for autoimmune disease, bladder cancer, and cardiovascular disease (, just to name a few of the side effects. These effects are amplified if the habit is picked up at an early age, while cells are still rapidly dividing and susceptive to free radical damage. Second-hand smoke can also cause health problems in the families of smokers and even those casually exposed to tobacco smoke. Unfortunately, unlike other unhealthy habits which only affect the willing participant, tobacco smoke dissipates into the surrounding air and cigarette butts rarely find their way into the proper receptacles.

When we think of air pollution often what comes to mind is large tracker trailers and factory smoke stacks, not little cigarettes. But cigarette smoke contains more particulate matter than diesel exhaust (Invernizzi). At an overwhelming 85%, the majority of the smoke that dissipates into the air is what is known as “side-stream” smoke (Environmental Tobacco Smoke). This hotter burning smoke is smoke that burns directly off the lit end of the cigarette and does not pass through the cigarette’s filter tip. The concentration of carcinogens in this smoke is much higher than the smoke that is exhaled. One need only look at the improvement in indoor air quality since the ban on indoor smoking to see how dramatic the effect of tobacco is. The presence of carcinogens in the air from tobacco smoke presents a major health hazard because not only is the smoker affected but children and pregnant women are also exposed to these hazardous chemicals. Although cigarettes remain a part of our culture for the time being, positive steps can be made to minimize their impact.

Although some would complain about the “nanny state” interfering with the free market, it is clear that the government has the capacity to influence rates of smokers. A pack of cigarettes in the United States ranges from $4.96 in Kentucky to $14.50 in New York (Jampel). Large excise taxes on tobacco have been proven time and time again to reduce the prevalence of smoking, smokers simply can’t afford it. Instead of solely relying on increasing taxes on cigarettes the government should begin to subsidize tobacco-free nicotine delivery systems. Although still addictive, nicotine itself is not a known carcinogen and its subtle stimulant effects are not without merit. New products such as nicotine gum and E-cigarettes provide a means of acquiring this chemical without the other 4,700 that are found in tobacco smoke. Because personal freedom is important, prohibition is not a viable option when talking about tobacco. Clearly we cannot continue on our current trajectory and need to find new ways to reduce the rates of tobacco use without impinging on personal freedoms.


Works Cited

Invernizzi, Giovanni. “Cigarette Smoke Contains 10 times more air pollution than diesel car exhaust.” Medical News Today. MediLexicon International Ltd, 25 Aug 2044. Web. 28 Mar 2014. <>.

Jampel, Sarah. “What A Pack of Cigarettes Costs Now, State by State .” The AWL. John Shankman, 12 Jul 2013. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <>.

Nadakavukaren, Anne . Our Global Environment A Health Perspective. 7th. United States of America: Waveland Press Inc, 2011. Print.

Singapore Government. Health Promotion Board.Environmental Tobacco Smoke. 2012. Web. <>.

“Tobacco Use.” Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion . Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, 16 Nov 2012. Web. 28 Mar 2014.

United States . U.S. Department of Health and Human Services . . Web. <>.

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