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Ammonium compoinds

Ammonia is a colourless gas and has a characteristically strong odour. It is found naturally in the atmosphere in small amounts and is also​ produced by decaying animals and plants.

Ammonia is a natural substance produced in the body, and is removed as the substance ‘urea’ in urine.

General uses

Ammonia and ammonium compounds are widely used as industrial chemicals in the production of fertilisers, fibres, plastics and explosives. They are also used as an ingredient in the food and drinks industry.

Reported tobacco industry uses

Ammonia is produced from the burning of ammonium compounds that are naturally present in tobacco. However, ammonium compounds are also added by tobacco manufacturers to help produce the ‘paper-like’ reconstituted tobacco sheets that are used to form the shredded brown interior of cigarettes. Ammonium compounds help to make the waste parts of the reconstituted tobacco more suitable for blending with tobacco. Furthermore, ammonium compounds are used to enhance the flavour of cigarettes, and are added to cigarettes filters to help control how quickly the cigarette burns.

In the Netherlands, tobacco manufacturers rarely report on the addition of ammonium compound to tobacco. However, they can make up to 0.3% of the average weight of the tobacco used in one cigarette. 

Harmful health effects

There are various ways in which ammonia/ ammonium compounds are thought to influence smoking dependence. The ability of ammonium compounds to increase the appeal of smoking suggests that their addition to tobacco products can be considered to have indirect harmful effects. This is because the more attractive the cigarette is, the greater its ability to stimulate smoking behaviour, and sustain the smoking habit in smokers who ultimately end up being exposed to higher levels of the toxic substances in cigarette smoke.

Ammonium compounds are thought to contribute to the addictiveness of tobacco by improving the way nicotine is absorbed into the lungs. However, the available evidence is conflicting.

Ammonium compounds react with other substances in the tobacco and the smoke. They produce desirable flavours when they react with sugars, which improve the taste of the tobacco, and ultimately increase the appeal of smoking.

This text of the factsheet on the tobacco additive Ammonium compounds 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.