Biomonitoring has played a role in the assessment of secondhand smoke (also referred to as environmental tobacco smoke). CDC’s Division of Laboratory Sciences (DLS) houses the Tobacco Laboratory, which investigates both individual and population exposures to the chemicals in tobacco products. The Laboratory is unique because it measures toxic and addictive substances in tobacco products, in smoke and other emissions, and in people who use tobacco products or are exposed to secondhand smoke. No other laboratory in the federal government has these capabilities.

Tobacco smoke contains more than 7,000 chemical components, and at least 250 of these chemicals are harmful to human health. By looking at all aspects of tobacco use and exposure, scientists in the Tobacco Laboratory are able to obtain a more accurate understanding of how smokers, non-smokers (through secondhand smoke), and smokeless tobacco users are exposed to harmful chemicals.

Public Health Impact

The Tobacco Laboratory developed a method for measuring very low levels of cotinine, a nicotine metabolite, as a marker of exposure for smokers and persons exposed to secondhand smoke. In the early 1990s, the Tobacco Laboratory produced data showing that 88 percent of the nonsmoking U.S. population was exposed to tobacco smoke. This finding was used as a justification for restricting smoking in public buildings. The Tobacco Laboratory has continued to measure the population’s exposure to secondhand smoke and has found that since the 1990s secondhand smoke exposure has dropped dramatically in all segments of the population.

Tobacco Smoke and Other Emissions

To analyze tobacco smoke and other emissions, the Tobacco Laboratory:

  • Uses smoking machines to collect both the particulate matter and gases in mainstream cigarette smoke generated according to international standards.
  • Collects smoke with alternate smoking conditions to examine how differences in smoking alter the delivery of toxic and addictive constituents.

Tobacco Product Use

To understand how tobacco products are used (topography), the Tobacco Laboratory:

  • Looks at how much smoke people draw from cigarettes. This can increase the nicotine they are getting, regardless of how the package is labeled.
  • Studies products to assess how cigarette design influences how people use tobacco products.
  • Looks at racial and genetic differences in smoking behavior and nicotine metabolism, or how the body breaks down nicotine, and how these influence adverse health effects from tobacco use.

Tobacco Markers in the Body

To study the types and levels of tobacco markers in the body, the Tobacco Laboratory:

  • Develops laboratory methods to measure tobacco exposure in human blood, saliva, serum, or urine.
  • Examines the effects of tobacco–related chemicals in at–risk populations (older adults, pregnant women, and children).
  • Performs short–term studies looking at different populations affected by tobacco exposure.
  • Measures markers related to tobacco use, such as cotinine and the tobacco-specific nitrosamine NNAL, and produces population–based reference levels segmented by age, sex, and race or ethnicity; this information is then published in CDC’s National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals.
  • Partners with other leaders in the field of tobacco and smoking research to study specific chemicals in tobacco products and people.

Future Tobacco Research

For the future, the Tobacco Laboratory plans to:

  • Develop short-term markers of the long-term adverse health effects of tobacco use.
  • Identify other chemicals in tobacco or product design features that boost or maintain addiction.
  • Develop tests to measure major cancer-causing chemicals, pesticides, and other toxic chemicals, such as lead, chromium, heterocyclic amines, and cyanide, in tobacco products and/or tobacco smoke.

Additional resources

Page last reviewed: April 7, 2017