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What is Tobacco?

Tobacco is a leafy plant grown around the world, including parts of the lower 48 and small harvesting in Alaska. There are many chemicals found in tobacco leaves, but nicotine is the one that can lead to addiction. Addiction is a preventable and irreversible brain disease that may worsen until a person changes their behaviors and gets help. Other chemicals produced by smoking tobacco, such as tar, carbon monoxide, acetaldehyde, and nitrosamines, also can cause serious harm to the body. Tobacco and nicotine products come in many forms. People can smoke, chew, sniff them or inhale their vapors. In Alaska, people 21 years of age and older can legally buy or use tobacco products.

For many Alaska Natives, tobacco use is tied to traditional activities, such as hunting, berry picking, and fishing. However, tobacco was first introduced to Alaska Native people by western traders and does not serve a ceremonial, religious or medical function in traditional Alaska Native culture.

Smoked Tobacco Products:

These are labeled as regular, light, or menthol, but no evidence exists that one type is safer than the other.

Similar to a cigarette, however, a cigar is wrapped in material containing tobacco, where a cigarette is wrapped in paper.

The oldest known traditional form of tobacco smoking.

Bidis are small, thin, hand-rolled cigarettes primarily imported to the U.S. from India and other Southeast Asian countries. Kreteks– contain about 60% tobacco and 40% cloves. Flavored bidis and kreteks are banned in the U.S. because of the ban on flavored cigarettes.

Hookah tobacco comes in many flavors, and the pipe is typically passed around in groups. It has been found that a typical hookah session delivers approximately 125x the smoke, 25x the tar, 2.5x the nicotine, and 10x the carbon monoxide as smoking a cigarette.

Smokeless Tobacco Products

Tobacco is not burned with these products:

  • Chewing Tobacco: It is typically placed between the cheek and gums.
  • Snuff: Ground tobacco that can be sniffed if dried or placed between the cheek and gum.
  • Dip: Moist snuff that is used like chewing tobacco.
  • Snus: A small pouch of moist snuff.
  • Dissolvable Products: These include lozenges, orbs, sticks, and strips.
  • Iqmik or Blackbull: an Alaska-specific smokeless tobacco variant. It is a homemade variant that is primarily used in the Southwest region of Alaska.

The Brain and Body

Tobacco and the Teenage Brain

When teens use tobacco products, nicotine increases the levels of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is released naturally when you experience something pleasurable like good food, your favorite activity, or spending time with people you care about. When using tobacco, this effect wears off quickly, causing people who smoke to use it again.

When smokeless tobacco is used, nicotine is absorbed through the mouth tissues directly into the blood, where it then goes to the brain. Even after the tobacco is removed from the mouth, nicotine continues to be absorbed into the bloodstream. Nicotine stays in the blood longer for users of smokeless tobacco than for smokers.

Research shows that using tobacco products during the teen years can interfere with normal brain development and change the brain in ways that:

  • Have negative effects on information processing and learning.
  • Increase the risk of developing other substance use disorders later in life.

Tobacco and the Teenage Body

When nicotine enters the body, it initially causes the adrenal glands to release a hormone called adrenaline, which stimulates the body and gives a pleasurable kick. But a rush of adrenaline also causes the following:

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate
  • Faster breathing

E-cigarettes and the Teenage Brain & Body

Research so far suggests that e-cigarettes might be less harmful than cigarettes when people who regularly smoke switch to them completely and no longer use traditional cigarettes. Because e-cigarettes affect the development of the brain’s reward system, continued use can lead to nicotine addiction. Using e-cigarettes can make the other drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine more pleasurable to a teen’s developing brain.

It is important to remember that nicotine in any form is a highly addictive drug. Health experts have raised many questions about the safety of e-cigarettes, particularly for teens:

  • Testing of some e-cigarette products found that aerosol (vapor) to contain known cancer-causing and toxic chemicals, and particles from the vaporizing mechanism that may be harmful. The health effects of repeated exposure to these chemicals are still unclear.
  • Some research suggests that e-cigarette use may serve as a “gateway” or introductory product for youth to try other tobacco products, including traditional cigarettes.
  • Research suggests that certain brands of e-cigarettes contain metals like nickel and chromium, possibly coming from the heating of coils.


Smoking tobacco can lead to bad outcomes physically, mentally and socially. Being under the influence of tobacco (or any other drug) can make it hard to keep your personal rules or you may find yourself in a situation that you may not want to be in.

Nicotine is addictive, as people keep using tobacco they are continually exposed to many toxic chemicals found in the tobacco. These include carbon monoxide, tar, formaldehyde, cyanide, and ammonia. Tobacco use harms every organ in the body and can cause many serious health problems such as.

Cigarette smoking can be blamed for about one-third of all cancer deaths, including 90% of lung cancer cases. Tobacco use is also linked with cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, cervix, kidney, ureter, bladder, and bone marrow (leukemia).

Bronchitis (swelling of the air passages to the lungs), emphysema (damage to the lungs), and pneumonia have been linked to smoking. People who smoke can’t exercise or play sports for as long as they once did.

Smoking increases the risk of stroke, heart attack, and other diseases of the blood’s heart and circulation system that can lead to death.

People who smoke can get cataracts, which is clouding of the eye that causes blurred vision.

This also includes bad breath.

After smoking for a long time, people find their skin ages faster and their teeth discolor.

Pregnant women who smoke are at increased risk for delivering their baby early, having smaller babies, or suffering a miscarriage, stillbirth, or experiencing other problems with their pregnancy. Smoking by pregnant women also may be associated with learning and behavior problems in children.

Smoking is the leading cause of fire-related deaths–more than 600 deaths each year, in some cases caused by people falling asleep with a lit cigarette that causes a house fire.

Smokeless Tobacco

The health effects of smokeless tobacco (iqmik, chew, dip, etc.) are somewhat different from those of smoked tobacco, but both can cause serious health issues such as:

  • Smoker’s Lung, where lungs turn black because of tar and chemical build-up
  • Coughing and additional phlegm production
  • Asthma
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Secondhand Smoke

People who do not smoke but live or hang out with smokers are exposed to secondhand smoke–smoke that is exhaled or given off by the burning end of tobacco products. Just like smoking, regularly standing near smokers increases your risk of disease. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke.

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