What is tobacco?

Tobacco is the dried leaves of the plant that grow in many parts of the world. The main active ingredient is nicotine.

Most tobacco used in this country comes from America and is sold as cigarettes. Cigars and pipe tobacco are made from stronger, darker tobacco. Snuff is powdered tobacco that is sniffed up the nose.

Tobacco is often used when making cannabis cigarettes or joints. Both rolling tobacco and tobacco removed from packet cigarettes are mixed with resin or herbal cannabis and rolled into cigarette papers.


Tobacco smoking involves the inhalation of tar, nicotine, carbon monoxide and other gases. Nicotine is a stimulant drug which increases pulse rate and blood pressure. Regular smokers often find smoking combats anxiety and stress, helps concentration and alleviates boredom. Some also find it suppresses appetite. First time users often feel sick, dizzy and suffer headache.

Tolerance develops quickly to the effects of nicotine so more is needed to get an effect. Most people who smoke become dependent and feel restless and anxious if they try to stop. Very few people find they can just have the occasional cigarette. They tend to either smoke a number a day or not smoke at all.

Regular, long term smoking greatly increases the risk of a number of serious diseases including lung and other cancers, heart diseases, bronchitis, bad circulation and ulcers. About 120,000 people die prematurely in the UK each year through smoking related diseases.

Women who smoke cigarettes during pregnancy tend to give birth to babies of smaller birth weight. Smoking whilst taking oral contraceptives (‘the pill’) increases the risk of heart and circulatory problems.

Exposure to second hand tobacco smoke also damages health. According to the Health Survey for England  among non-smokers in 2015, 81% were not exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke, as measured by undetectable levels of saliva cotinine, higher than in HSE2013 when it was 75%.  Self-reported regular exposure to secondhand smoke was highest among those aged 16-24 with over half of this group reporting some exposure.


Electronic cigarette (e-cigarettes) are devices that enable the user to inhale nicotine. They work by heating and vaporising a solution that contains nicotine, glycerine and sometimes flavourings. Since there is no burning involved, there is no smoke and there is no tar or carbon monoxide produced – two of the most harmful products of amoking. Inhaling nicotine from an e-cigarette is referred to as vaping.

An e-cigarette

During the last five years e-cigarettes have become increasingly widely available and popular. While there are some public health concerns over the uptake of e-cigarettes by non-smokers, many doctors believe that they can help smokers quit or reduce their tobacco consumption.

According to the Health Survey for England published by NHS Digital in December 2016:

  • In 2015, 5% of adults were currently using e-cigarettes. This is a small increase from HSE2013, when 3% of adults were current e-cigarette users
  • The prevalence of ever having used e-cigarettes was much higher among current smokers (40%). Only 1% of those who had never smoked had ever used an e-cigarette.

This suggests that very few non-smokers have taken up using e-cigarettes. However, because e-cigarettes are still fairly new, it is likely we do not yet know for sure the complete picture on their safety.

New rules for e-cigarettes and their refill containers came into effect in the UK on May 20 2016. These rules ensure that there are minimum standards for the safety and quality of all e-cigarettes and refill containers.

Furthermore, e-cigarettes may soon to be prescribed on the NHS to help people stop smoking. If so, the UK would be the first country in the world to do so.

For more information see our e-cigarettes DrugSearch page

Prevalence of cigarette use

According to data from the 2016 Health Survey for England

  • The prevalence of adult cigarette smoking has fallen steadily from 28% in 1998 to 18% in 2015.
  • 19% of men and 17% of women were current smokers.
  • 1% of children aged 8 to 15 in the years 2014 and 2015 reported that they smoked regularly (at least one cigarette per week).
  • Among non-smoking children aged 4 to 15, 34% of boys and 38% of girls had detectable levels of cotinine in 2014/2015, indicating exposure to other people’s smoke.



The first recorded examples of tobacco smoking were from the Mexican Maya civilisation in about 500 AD. Tobacco was first brought to England in the second part of the 16th century by Sir Walter Raleigh. By the early 1600s it was sold in specialist tobacconist shops, grocers and drapers. Many Europeans made extravagant claims about the use of tobacco to cure a variety of diseases and ailments. Initially smoking tobacco for pleasure was confined to the wealthy classes but its use gradually spread.

In the early 1600s King James and the clergy came out strongly against smoking tobacco and regarded it as a risk to morals and health. Rather than attempting to completely ban it the King raised the duty on its importation. Other countries took a more draconian view. Tobacco smoking could be punished by death in Persia or China.

From the late 17th century to early 19th century snuff replaced pipe smoking as the main way tobacco was used in England. Cigar smoking also became more common.

Cigarettes were first introduced to England by troops returning from the Crimean War (1854-86) who had seen French and Turkish soldiers smoking them. At this time cigarettes were of the roll-your-own variety. By the 1870s English companies started making ready rolled cigarettes but it was not till the 1880s, with the development of automatic machinery, that cigarettes as we know them today became widely available. Filter tip cigarettes were first introduced in the 1950s.

During the 1960s tobacco smoking became associated with health problems. Until that time tobacco products were often seen as health enhancing and a good way or relaxing. Smoking was even advertised by famous sportsmen.

Health warnings led to a fall in tobacco consumption in developed countries, increased tax on tobacco products, controls on advertising, low tar varieties and bans on smoking in public places. Concerns over health also led to new products and schemes to help people stop smoking, including smoking cessation groups, nicotine patches, chewing gums and e-cigarettes.

It has been revealed that the tobacco companies knew for many years before it became public knowledge that regular smoking was closely linked to cancer. This has led to a number of court cases in the USA from those seeking compensation.

The law

It is not illegal to buy, possess or use tobacco products. Since 2003, tobacco advertising and promotion are banned in the UK, following the passage of the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act in December 2002.

Since 1st July 2007, smoking in virtually all enclosed public places and workplaces has been banned throughout the UK and from the 1st October 2007 the cigarette buying age was raised to 18.

The future

A report published in June 2021 sets out the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health’s recommendations for the Tobacco Control Plan to deliver a Smokefree UK by 2030. They note how Government action to end smoking is both needed and wanted, with three quarters of the public supporting both the ambition and Government action to deliver it.

Delivering a Smokefree 2030: The All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health recommendations for the Tobacco Control Plan 2021 (PDF)


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