Smoking could 'damage body within minutes'

In collaboration with Adfero

Cigarette smoke causes levels of cancer-causing chemicals to build up in the bloodstream within minutes of inhaling, US scientists have found.

A research team at the University of Minnesota carried out a study to determine how quickly cigarette chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and the chemicals the body produces from them, build up in humans.

PAHs are known to play a role in the development of smoking-related lung cancer, so researchers added a PAH called phenanthrene to cigarettes and followed its fate in 12 smokers. Phenanthrene itself has not been linked to cancer, but it was used as an example of how the body treats other, more harmful PAHs.

In the body, PAHs are quickly turned into another chemical, which is known to promote cancer-causing genetic changes.

Using phenanthrene as an example, the researchers found, worryingly, that it takes just 15 to 30 minutes for maximum levels of this substance to appear in the bloodstream.

Lead researcher Dr Stephen Hecht, whose findings are published in the journal Chemical Research in Toxicology, wrote: "This study is unique. It is the first to investigate human metabolism of a PAH specifically delivered by inhalation in cigarette smoke, without interference by other sources of exposure such as air pollution or the diet.

"The results reported here should serve as a stark warning to those who are considering starting to smoke cigarettes."

Martin Dockrell, director of policy and research at Action on Smoking and Health, commented: "Almost everybody knows that smoking can cause lung cancer.

"The chilling thing about this research is that it shows just how early the very first stages of that process begin - not in 30 years but within 30 minutes of a single cigarette for every subject in the study."

Jean King, Cancer Research UK's director of tobacco control, said: "It's worrying to see how quickly some of the harmful chemicals in tobacco smoke can cause damage. Half of all long-term smokers are killed by their addiction, and a quarter die in middle age - so the harmful effects of smoking may not be as far away as they seem. Giving up smoking reduces the risk of cancer, and smokers should be given as much support as possible to help quit.

"Eye-catching, brightly lit walls of cigarettes behind shop counters must be removed if tobacco marketing is to be stopped. If these displays continue, young people and smokers will continue to be bombarded with branding that encourages smoking. For anyone ready to quit your doctor or pharmacist can help, or visit


  • Zhong, Y. et al (2010). Immediate Consequences of Cigarette Smoking: Rapid Formation of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon Diol Epoxides Chemical Research in Toxicology DOI: 10.1021/tx100345x