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Sorbitol is a substance that is formed in the body during the process of metabolism i.e. when the body breaks down glucose to produce energy. Sorbitol is found naturally in certain fruits, such as apples and pears, and also in tobacco plants. It has a slightly sweet, caramel-like odour and a sweet taste.

General uses

Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol compound and as such, is often used as an artificial sweetener in food and health care products. It is also used as a ‘humectant’ to keep food and cosmetics moist. Furthermore, sorbitol’s ability to dissolve oil in water makes it a useful ingredient in detergents. 

Reported tobacco industry uses

Tobacco manufacturers use sorbitol as a humectant i.e. to keep the tobacco moist and to prevent it from crumbling. It is also used to improve the way the tobacco burns.

The amount of sorbitol added to cigarettes can make up to about 0.3% of the total average weight of the tobacco used in one cigarette.

Harmful health effects

Sorbitol is completely burned during smoking. Studies have shown that when sorbitol is burnt it produces some potentially harmful compounds that are present in large amounts in the smoke inhaled by the smoker. These include the chemicals formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, which have been classed as cancer-causing agents by the expert cancer organisation IARC (the International Agency for Research on Cancer). Other substances formed include acrolein, and furfural, which are known to irritate the eyes and the upper parts of the airways.

Due to its moistening properties, sorbitol may make cigarettes more appealing and easier to smoke. However, this would be countered by the slightly bitter taste and unpleasant smell sorbitol gives the tobacco smoke when it is burnt.

There are currently no studies providing information on how sorbitol affects smoking addiction. However, the use of sorbitol may be indirectly harmful due to the formation of compounds such as acetaldehyde, which is thought to increase the addictive effect of nicotine. This can ultimately lead to more cigarettes being smoked and thus greater exposure to the toxic substances in cigarette smoke.  

This text of the factsheet on the tobacco additive Sorbitol 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.