What is Cigarette Tar and How Can it Hurt Me?

The Toxic Chemicals in Cigarettes

Martin Diebel/Getty Images

Cigarette tar is a term adopted to describe the toxic chemical particles left behind from burning cigarettes. This substance forms a tacky brown or yellow residue.  It is not the same as tar used on road surfaces.  

Cigarette filters were first added to cigarettes in the 1950s when it was reported that the tar in cigarettes was associated with an increased risk of lung cancer. It was thought that the filter would trap harmful tar and nicotine residues, but the design never worked as well as hoped.

Toxins still made it through and into the smoker's lungs, exposing them to the risks of smoking-related disease.

In recent years, research has identified additional risks associated with cigarette residue that lingers in closed environments where cigarettes (cigars, pipe and rolling tobacco, too) have been smoked. This health threat is called third-hand smoke.

Cigarette Tar and Third-hand Smoke

Cigarette tar and third-hand smoke contain many of the same chemicals, and it is now understood that the brown, tacky toxins left behind from smoke drawn through cigarette filters also settles on surfaces and stays put. 

In addition to the resins that make up cigarette tar, third-hand smoke also includes airborne chemicals that remain in the air for a period of time after a cigarette has been smoked.  

Third-hand smoke is dangerous for everyone who comes in contact with it, but especially for small children who may touch tainted surfaces and then put fingers into their mouths.


Read more:  Why Third-hand Smoke is So Dangerous

A few cigarette tar facts:

  • Tar is present in all tobacco products that are burned and tends to increase as the item is burnt down. The last puffs on a cigarette can contain as much as twice the amount of tar as the first puffs.
  • Tar is responsible for the brown stains on the fingers and teeth of smokers.
  • Tar in cigarette smoke paralyzes the cilia in the lungs, and contributes to lung diseases such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and lung cancer.
  • In the past, the concentration of tar in a cigarette determined its rating:  High-tar cigarettes (regular or full-flavor) contained 15 milligrams (mg) or more of tar. Medium-tar (light) cigarettes had 6-15 mg, and low-tar (extra-light or ultra-light) cigarettes contained 1-6 mg of tar.  

  • Today, "light", "low" and "mild" descriptors on cigarette labels is no longer allowed. Cigarettes with a lower level of tar are now referred to as "low yield" cigarettes. Many smokers mistakenly related light, low and mild to healthy or at least healthier, which no cigarette is.

  • The average amount of tar in cigarettes was lowered from 38 mg (and 2.7 mg for nicotine)  in 1954 to 12 mg of tar and 0.95 mg of nicotine.  It remains at that level today.

To date, researchers have identified upwards of 7000 chemical compounds in cigarette smoke, 250 of which are poisonous and 70 that can cause cancer.


Cigarette tar is poisonous and carcinogenic and is present wherever there is tobacco smoke. The best way to remove this danger from your life and those you love is to avoid indoor locations (including cars) where cigarettes are smoked, or quit if you're a smoker yourself.

See also:  Are Light Cigarettes Less of a Risk for Smokers?


Low Yield Cigarettes Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed January, 2016.

"Up In Smoke: The Truth About Tar and Nicotine Ratings". The U.S. Federal Trade Commission. Accessed January, 2016.

"A Vision for the Future." Surgeon General's Report 1981 Section 8. Centers for Disease Control.

"Low-Tar Cigarettes Do Not Cut Cancer Risk.". MIT News Office. Accessed January, 2016.

Continue Reading