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Licorice (or liquorice) is the root of the licorice plant from which the characteristically sweet licorice flavour is extracted. The extract contains the very sweet substance glycyrhizzin, as well as sugars.

General uses

The root or the extract is used as a source of licorice flavour. The liquor from the extract is often processed into a powder or a more concentrated solid block.

The licorice root/extract is widely used in the food industry as a sweetening agent, or flavouring ingredient in drinks, candy and gum.  Due to its medicinal properties it is also used in both traditional and herbal medicines e.g. in the pharmaceutical industry licorice is used in over-the-counter drugs and cough syrups.

Reported tobacco industry uses

Tobacco manufacturers reportedly use licorice at different stages of manufacturing to add flavour to the tobacco and to sweeten the smoke. Licorice gives a mellow, sweet and woody note to the smoke.

The amount of licorice added to the cigarette can make up to 4% of the total weight of the tobacco used in one cigarette. Licorice is also used as a flavour for other tobacco products such as cigars, and chewing tobacco.

Harmful health effects

Licorice is generally regarded as safe for use in food and cosmetics. However, this does not suggest it is safe when inhaled from smoking cigarettes. When licorice extracts are burnt they produce several toxic compounds including some that are well known to cause cancer in humans (e.g. benzene), or those that could possibly cause cancer (e.g. acetaldehyde).  Other toxic substances produced include the chemicals toluene and phenol that could cause other damaging health effects.

The sugars in the extract can also produce acidic compounds, which make it harder for the nicotine in the cigarette smoke to reach the brain. This forces smokers to inhale deeper and to also consume more cigarettes to get their nicotine fix. Furthermore, the use of licorice may be indirectly harmful due to the formation of compounds called aldehydes (e.g. acetaldehyde), which can make cigarettes more addictive by enhancing the addictive potential of nicotine. Aldehydes are very reactive and produce other compounds such as the substance harman, which can also make cigarettes more addictive due to its mood-enhancing effect on the brain.

The addition of licorice extract makes the smoking experience more pleasurable in several ways, i.e. it helps the tobacco to stay moist, balances the overall flavour of the cigarette, and reduces dryness in the mouth and throat.

Furthermore, the caramel flavours produced when the sugars in the licorice extract are burnt help enhance the flavour and attractiveness of smoking. Also, the glycyrhizzin that is present could potent​ially to open up the airways, and in combination with other ingredients could allow smokers to inhale deeper, making it easier for them to get their nicotine fix.

Therefore, by adding more desirable flavours such as licorice to cigarettes, tobacco manufacturers succeed in making smoking more pleasurable. This, not only encourages the smoking habit, but also makes it easier for smokers to become addicted, which ultimately causes them to be exposed to higher levels of the toxic substances in cigarette smoke.

This text of the factsheet on the tobacco additive Licorice was written by the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ). 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.