Free-radical chemistry of cigarette smoke and its toxicological implications

Environ Health Perspect. 1985 Dec;64:111-26. doi: 10.1289/ehp.8564111.


Cigarette smoke contains two very different populations of free radicals, one in the tar and one in the gas phase. The tar phase contains several relatively stable free radicals; we have identified the principal radical as a quinone/hydroquinone (Q/QH2) complex held in the tarry matrix. We suggest that this Q/QH2 polymer is an active redox system that is capable of reducing molecular oxygen to produce superoxide, eventually leading to hydrogen peroxide and hydroxyl radicals. In addition, we have shown that the principal radical in tar reacts with DNA in vitro, possibly by covalent binding. The gas phase of cigarette smoke contains small oxygen- and carbon-centered radicals that are much more reactive than are the tar-phase radicals. These gas-phase radicals do not arise in the flame, but rather are produced in a steady state by the oxidation of NO to NO2, which then reacts with reactive species in smoke such as isoprene. We suggest that these radicals and the metastable products derived from these radical reactions may be responsible for the inactivation of alpha 1-proteinase inhibitor by fresh smoke. Cigarette smoke oxidizes thiols to disulfides; we suggest the active oxidants are NO and NO2. The effects of smoke on lipid peroxidation are complex, and this is discussed. We also discuss the toxicological implications for the radicals in smoke in terms of a number of radical-mediated disease processes, including emphysema and cancer.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Blood Proteins / metabolism
  • Electron Spin Resonance Spectroscopy
  • Free Radicals
  • Humans
  • Kinetics
  • Lipid Peroxides
  • Mutation
  • Neoplasms / etiology
  • Protease Inhibitors / metabolism
  • Smoke / adverse effects*
  • Smoke / analysis
  • Smoking*
  • Sulfhydryl Compounds
  • Tars / analysis
  • alpha 1-Antitrypsin


  • Blood Proteins
  • Free Radicals
  • Lipid Peroxides
  • Protease Inhibitors
  • Smoke
  • Sulfhydryl Compounds
  • Tars
  • alpha 1-Antitrypsin