Two-minute expert: a quick guide to tobacco and nicotine products

Major tobacco companies claim that they want to eventually stop selling cigarettes. How? By introducing new products that they say can help existing smokers quit. But what are they, and how do they differ from more established products on the market?

What are vapes or e-cigarettes?

Vapes or e-cigarettes contain a battery that is used to heat a solution that can be inhaled as an aerosol. The solution (known as “vape juice” or “e-liquid”) typically contains nicotine, alongside propylene glycol or glycerine, water and flavourings. You can get juices that are nicotine free. Vapes do not contain tobacco.

Some vapes can be recharged and/or refilled. Others are disposed of once the juice runs out.

Other tobacco-free products include nicotine pouches. These are small bags that contain nicotine, plant-based fibres, water, sweeteners and flavourings. People hold them in their mouths, between their gum and cheek, or gum and lip. They’re not made to be swallowed.

What is heated tobacco?

Heated tobacco devices heat tobacco without burning it. They contain nicotine, additives and can be flavoured. They are also known by the industry as “heat-not-burn” and “smokeless tobacco” products.

There are other ways people use tobacco without burning it:

  • Chewing tobacco
    This form of tobacco is cured and can be used in the loose leaf form, or as plug or twist. People put this between their gum and cheek, or gum and lip.

  • Moist snuff/snus
    Cut tobacco, either loose or in small sachets. Like chewing tobacco, people put them in their mouths.

  • Dissolvable tobacco
    Sold as strips, sticks and lozenges, this kind of tobacco dissolves in the mouth and doesn’t have to be spat out.

What products do people smoke?

“Traditional” products involve the combustion (burning) of tobacco:

  • Cigarettes
    Usually white paper tubes that contain treated tobacco leaf or a mix of tobacco and another substance, cigarettes are burned and the smoke is inhaled through the mouth.

  • Cigars and cigarillos
    Cigars are tubes of rolled tobacco leaf (or a mix of tobacco and another substance) that are wrapped in natural tobacco. They are burned and the smoke is inhaled through the mouth. A cigarillo is a short, narrow cigar.

  • Loose tobacco
    Used in pipes or in roll-your-own cigarettes.

What are tobacco and nicotine anyway?

  • Tobacco is a plant that belongs to the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, which includes tomato, aubergine, petunia and potato. These plants have been used as sources of food and drugs by humans for centuries, and they’ve also played an important role in scientific research.

  • Nicotine is a chemical found in plants from the Solanaceae family and is produced in particularly high amounts in tobacco plants. It is a stimulant of the central nervous system and is what makes cigarettes and other nicotine-containing things addictive. It can also be made synthetically.

By Chrissie Giles

Header image credit: Branislav Cerven / Alamy

Our reporting on tobacco is part of our Global Health project, which has a number of funders. Our Big Tobacco project is funded by Vital Strategies. None of our funders have any influence over the Bureau’s editorial decisions or output.