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Sugars occur naturally in all plants and animals and are used as a source of energy as well as to produce other biologically important molecules.

General uses

Sugars are generally used in the food and drink industry as sweeteners.

Reported tobacco industry uses

Tobacco manufacturers add sugars to tobacco to improve the flavour of tobacco, and to help the tobacco bind together and stay moist. Examples of the sugars added to tobacco include glucose, fructose and sucrose.

The sugars naturally present in tobacco can comprise up to 20% of the total weight of tobacco. However, this amount varies according to the method used to process the tobacco. The amount of sugar that is intentionally added to tobacco can make up as much as 4.0% of the total weight of the tobacco used in one cigarette. This makes sugars one of the most predominant additives in tobacco. In The Netherlands, manufacturers report that the average level of sugar added is 1.3% of the total weight of  tobacco used in one cigarette (and can be as high as 3.9%).

Other tobacco additives that also contain high amounts of sugars, (and thus may contribute to the overall sugar content of tobacco) include fruit juices, honey, corn, caramel and maple syrup.

Harmful health effects

Most of the sugars in tobacco are completely burnt when a cigarette is smoked and several compounds are formed. These include a group of compounds known as aldehydes, which are known to either irritate the throat (e.g. acrolein and furfural) or be linked to cancer in humans (e.g. acetaldehyde and formaldehyde). The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is an expert cancer organisation, and has classed acetaldehyde as a compound that possibly causes cancer in humans, while formaldehyde has very strong evidence of causing cancer in humans.

Some cigarette studies show that cigarettes with high sugar content produce higher levels of acetaldehyde when burnt. Acetaldehyde may enhance the addictiveness of cigarettes due to the actions of one of its reaction products, harman, on the brain. Harman is believed to behave in a similar way to anti-depressant drugs by improving a person’s mood. This means that smoking dependence could be stimulated by the mood-enhancing effects of harman in cigarettes. Acetaldehyde is also thought to increase the addictiveness of cigarettes by boosting the addictive potential of nicotine. Therefore, in this way the use of sugars may be indirectly harmful, which can ultimately lead to more cigarettes being smoked and therefore greater exposure to the toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke.

Furthermore, when the sugars in tobacco are burnt, acids are formed that make it more difficult for the nicotine in the smoke to reach the brain. This can cause smokers to increase the number of puffs they take, and force them to inhale more deeply to get more nicotine from the cigarette.

Adding sugars to cigarettes (or selecting tobaccos that are naturally high in sugar) also disguises the bitter taste of the tobacco smoke, and helps to make the smoke less harsh and more tolerable to the smoker. This produces a more palatable and attractive product that encourages greater use, which is particularly concerning given that the sweet caramel flavours produced from the burnt sugars, appeal to young people and can make it easier for them to start smoking.

This text of the factsheet on the tobacco additive Sugars 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.