Source and health implications of high toxic metal concentrations in illicit tobacco products

Environ Sci Technol. 2005 Jan 15;39(2):479-88. doi: 10.1021/es049038s.


A significant flux of heavy metals, among other toxins, reaches the lungs through smoking. Consequently, contaminated soil is usually avoided for tobacco cultivation. Here we compare the heavy metal concentrations in tobacco from a sample of 47 counterfeit products, representative of the substantial market for these products in the U.K., with their genuine equivalents and find significantly higher concentrations of heavy metals in the counterfeits. Trace element patterns suggest that over-application of fertilizers (phosphate and/or nitrate) is the most likely cause. Nitrogen isotopes showed no significant enrichment in 15N (delta15N range from +1.1 to +4.6% in counterfeits and from +2.5 to +3.3% in genuine tobaccos) as might be expected from a sewage or manure source of nitrate, and a mineral phosphate source is considered the more likely source of metals. Stable carbon isotopes in the same tobaccos have a wide range (delta13C -18.3 to -26.4%), indicating the influence of multiple controls during cultivation and possibly post-harvesting. A review of the health effects of heavy metal transfer from tobacco via smoke to the lungs indicates that habitual smokers of counterfeits may be risking additional harm from high levels of cadmium and possibly other metals.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Fertilizers
  • Humans
  • Metals, Heavy / analysis*
  • Public Health
  • Risk Assessment
  • Smoking / adverse effects
  • Soil Pollutants / analysis*
  • Tobacco / chemistry*
  • Tobacco Industry / standards*
  • United Kingdom


  • Fertilizers
  • Metals, Heavy
  • Soil Pollutants