Tobacco-specific nitrosamines, an important group of carcinogens in tobacco and tobacco smoke

Carcinogenesis. 1988 Jun;9(6):875-84. doi: 10.1093/carcin/9.6.875.


Tobacco-specific nitrosamines are a group of carcinogens that are present in tobacco and tobacco smoke. They are formed from nicotine and related tobacco alkaloids. Two of the nicotine-derived nitrosamines, NNK and NNN, are strong carcinogens in laboratory animals. They can induce tumors both locally and systemically. The induction of oral cavity tumors by a mixture of NNK and NNN, and the organospecificity of NNK for the lung are particularly noteworthy. The amounts of NNK and NNN in tobacco and tobacco smoke are high enough that their total estimated doses to long-term snuff-dippers or smokers are similar in magnitude to the total doses required to produce cancer in laboratory animals. These exposures thus represent an unacceptable risk to tobacco consumers, and possibly to non-smokers exposed for years to environmental tobacco smoke. The permission of such high levels of carcinogens in consumer products used by millions of people represents a major legislative failure. Indeed, the levels of tobacco-specific nitrosamines in tobacco are thousands of times higher than the amounts of other nitrosamines in consumer products that are regulated by government authorities. Although the role of tobacco-specific nitrosamines as causative factors in tobacco-related human cancers cannot be assessed with certainty because of the complexity of tobacco and tobacco smoke, several lines of evidence strongly indicate that they have a major role, especially in the causation of oral cancer in snuff-dippers. Epidemiologic studies have demonstrated that snuff-dipping causes oral cancer. NNK and NNN are quantitatively the most prevalent known carcinogens in snuff, and they induce oral tumors when applied to the rat oral cavity. A role for NNK in the induction of lung cancer by tobacco smoke is likely because of its organospecificity for the lung. Tobacco-specific nitrosamines may also be involved in the etiology of tobacco-related cancers of the esophagus, nasal cavity, and pancreas. Because they are derived from nicotine, and therefore should be associated only with tobacco, tobacco smoke and other nicotine-containing products, tobacco-specific nitrosamines as well as their metabolites and macromolecular adducts should be ideal markers for assessing human exposure to, and metabolic activation of, tobacco smoke carcinogens. Ongoing research has demonstrated the formation of globin and DNA adducts of NNK and NNN in experimental animals. Sensitive methods for the detection and quantitation of these adducts in humans would provide an approach to assessing individual risk for tobacco-related cancers.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Nicotiana* / analysis
  • Nitrosamines*
  • Plants, Toxic*
  • Smoking*


  • Nitrosamines