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Acetaldehyde is a substance produced in the body during metabolism, for e.g. when alcohol is broken down by the body. It occurs widely in nature as a chemical by-product in plants and many organisms. It is also naturally present in various food items such as ripened fruit, coffee, and bread. Acetaldehyde is described as having a refreshing taste, and a fruity and musty odour. 

General uses

Acetaldehyde is commonly used to help make other industrial chemicals. It is used as a solvent in the rubber, tanning and paper industries, and as a preservative for fruit and fish.  It is also used as a flavouring agent.

Reported tobacco industry uses 

Tobacco manufacturers do not use acetaldehyde as an additive in cigarettes. However, other tobacco additives (such as sugars, sorbitol and glycerol) produce acetaldehyde, which is released in the cigarette smoke, when burnt.

The smoke that is inhaled from smoking a single cigarette (i.e. mainstream smoke) contains on average 1 milligram of acetaldehyde. However, some cigarettes can produce double this amount. This makes acetaldehyde a major component of cigarette smoke (after tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide).

Harmful health effects 

Acetaldehyde is a very reactive compound, which is known to react with many compounds in the body. Acetaldehyde causes irritation of the airways, and has been classed as a possible cancer-causing agent by the expert cancer organisation IARC (the International Agency for Research on Cancer).

Acetaldehyde is indirectly harmful due to its potential to cause smoking dependence. This would ultimately cause smokers to be exposed to higher levels of the toxic substances in cigarette smoke. 

Acetaldehyde does not improve the taste or smell of cigarettes and is not thought to have any impact on the attractiveness of cigarettes. However, acetaldehyde is thought to increase the addictiveness of cigarettes by boosting the addictive potential of nicotine, which is the main substance in tobacco responsible for the dependence of smokers on cigarettes.

Acetaldehyde may indirectly enhance the addictiveness of cigarettes due to the actions of one of its reactive products ‘harman’ on the brain. Harman is believed to behave in a similar way to anti-depressant drugs by its ability to improve mood. Smoking dependence could therefore be stimulated by the mood-enhancing effects of harman in cigarettes. 

This text of the factsheet on the tobacco additive Acetaldehyde was written by the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM). You can find the original in English on the RIVM website

This initiative has received funding from the European Union in the framework of the Health Programme.