Smoking – The Anatomy of a Cigarette Puff

The scene with a filthy, unshaven goon holding his Uzi, taking a last suck on his almost rented cigarette, throwing it to the pavement and grinding it with his boots, and delivering a crisp punchline before pulling the trigger, has become an icon of the tormented hero ready to do extraordinary things despite having problems of his own. And in spite of all the oddities conferred on him to signify manliness, the cigarette always seems to top everything else.

Have you ever wondered what happens, every time he takes a puff from his cigarette? Or thought about where the smoke goes once it gets in before it gets out? If you're the type who takes everything for granted, you've probably never thought about it. But now that I've posed the question, I hope that somehow I've jiggled your sense of curiosity enough to make you read through this article.

We are born with pink elastic lungs. At the peak of health, they are resilient enough to expand and fill up with 6 liters of air in one deep breath, and strong enough to contract and expel 4.8liters of it out. Inhaled air passes through the trachea that splits into two bronchi bringing the air to the two lungs. Mucus from glands trap dirt and bacteria. And the dirty mucus is propelled up by hair cells to be coughed out, extremely keeping our airways clear and without obstruction.

The more you study anatomy, the more you'll believe that human beings did not become what we are now, by accident. Everything has been designed to perfection. The human body is even more organized than the Ayala Corporation. Every member of every organ system serves a purpose. Every part does what it does correctly at the right place, at the right time. So why on earth do we get sick?

There are many factors that upset this well-equipped machine that we call our body. Taking the case of the lungs for instance, a self sufficient, self cleaning engine that, if well taken care of, can take anyone as far as 100 yrs old. And beyond. But bear in mind that if only one of these parts becomes damaged, a chain reaction ensues, leading extremely to damage to the whole organ system.

The smoke that enters the lungs with each puff consists of two main components. Tar and nicotine. We may have read about tar in the Surgeon General's warnings. But what really is tar? It is the same black tar that is spread over concrete to make our highways smooth as silk. It is the same black tar that lines the chimney where Santa Claus goes down. It is the same black tar that lines the underside of our cooking pans. Would you be willing to line your lungs with that same black tar?

Now, the question that may pop up would be, "So what if my lungs are lined with tar?" Tar affects the lungs in two ways. First, physically, adding to the load of the lung's cleaning mechanism. Would you be glad to clean up after someone who keeps messing things up? Second, chemically, by interacting with the cells' DNA, consequentially changing the sequence, and giving rise to mutated genes that become the seeds of malignancies.

The second main component of cigarette smoke, nicotine, is the one that makes sure the smoker does not stop smoking. Nicotine triggers feelings of euphoria once it reaches the brain. And each time the body is fed with increasing doses of nicotine, the body responds by increasing the cell receptors. The more receptors he has, the more nicotine he will need to achieve the same feel good response. And the moment the required dose of nicotine is not met, the smoker experiences the opposite effect. So he reaches for another stick. And another. And another. And another …

With these noxious substances invading the once perfectly functioning lungs, initially, it creates a defense mechanism. It puts out more mucus, partly to protect itself as a shield, and partly to create more of the transport vehicle that will take the dirt up to be taken out. This mechanism, however, backfires. Too much mucus means narrows passageways for the mucus to get out, and narrows passageways for the oxygen to get in. Worse, the haircells became paralyzed by nicotine leading to mucus retention. And with prolonged exposure, the paralysis becomes permanent. How would you like to have permanent mucus in your lungs?

Now with permanent mucus in your lungs, the air sacs will contain a vacuum and start collapsing, leaving only gaping holes of useless space. This is called "atlectasis". Your chest capacity could increase, but the tissue tissue inside it can shrink to as small as the size of a mango. 6liters inhaled air can go down to as low as 1 / 4liter. The perfectly functioning machine has now become a perfectly damaged disaster area. How do you expect to function with this much oxygen drawing power, much less live on it?

Again, picture the action star sucking on his cigarette and throwing the cigarette butt to the floor where there are 10 more. Now, picture him 20 years later, lying on a bed, IV needle piercing his arm, pulse oxymeter pinching his thumb, oxygen tube rammed into his mouth, hooked to a ventilator. Realistic enough? Surely, this is more realistic than the Uzi, the magazine, the punchline, and the cigarette between his lips.