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The Antioxidant Properties of Tobacco

The Antioxidant Properties of Tobacco. Published in Tobacco Science, Volume 44, pages 71 to 73, May 2004. By Brad Rodu and Boxin Ou. (UAB)

Birmingham, AL -- Newly published research shows that commercial tobacco products have moderate-to-high antioxidant properties, much like fruits and vegetables. The just-released issue of the journal Tobacco Science reports that antioxidants “may have demonstrable local and systemic health effects that are positive, especially for smokeless tobacco users.”

The research was conducted by Dr. Brad Rodu, Professor of Pathology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Boxin Ou, PhD, of Brunswick Laboratories in Wareham, Massachusetts.

The human body constantly produces potentially damaging molecules known as reactive oxygen species (ROS), or free radicals. These are countered by antioxidant agents, which the body generates and which are available in some fruits and vegetables. Eating antioxidant-rich foods has been shown to reduce mortality from cardiovascular disease and cancer. Little is known, however, about the antioxidant characteristics of tobacco, another commonly ingested plant product.

Consumed by 20-50 percent of the world’s population, tobacco contains significant concentrations of polyphenols and carotenoids, which are important naturally occurring antioxidants. Cigarette smoking, however, is associated with low plasma antioxidant levels, which may result from the large numbers of free radicals that are created when tobacco is burned.

In contrast, plasma antioxidant levels in users of smokeless tobacco are similar to those of nonusers of tobacco. “High antioxidant levels in smokeless products may explain why even long-term users have only a low risk for mouth cancer,” said Dr. Rodu. Carotenoids have been shown to inhibit formation of cancerous lesions and produce clinical regression of white patches called keratoses. Polyphenols, which are responsible for most of the anti-oxidant activity in fruits and vegetables, also inhibit the formation of tumors in experimental systems.

Smokeless tobacco, in the form of chewing tobacco or moist snuff, has been shown to involve only two percent of the health risks of smoking. In fact, recent epidemiologic studies from Sweden have shown little or no mouth cancer risk related to Swedish snus, a form of moist snuff.

Drs. Rodu and Ou measured the antioxidant activity of 16 smokeless and cigarette products purchased at retail in Birmingham, Alabama, in December 2000, March 2001, and April 2003. Those included 10 moist snuff products (Rooster, Kodiak, Hawken, Copenhagen and six variations of Skoal), two chewing tobacco products (Beech-Nut and Red Man), two pelletized leaf tobacco products (Oliver Twist Senior and Oliver Twist Tropical), and two cigarette brands (Marlboro and Camel).

They employed the oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) assay, which measures inhibition of damage by the peroxide radical, one of the most common ROS in vivo. The ORAC assay has been used to measure the antioxidant capacity of a wide range of biological samples, from pure compounds to fruits, vegetables and animal tissues.

The 16 tobacco products had a range of antioxidant activity from modest to high (66 to 230 ìmole TE/g on a dry weight basis), and there was a strong correlation between ORAC level and total beneficial phenolic content. The range of ORAC activity in the tobacco products was similar to that reported for many fruits and vegetables.

Here is a list of the tobacco products studied and their antioxidant levels:

Antioxidant Activity in Tobacco Products

Tobacco Product


Antioxidant Activity




Oliver Twist

SLT Pellet






Moist snuff


Skoal Bandits

SLT Pouch



Moist snuff



Moist snuff


Skoal Straight

Moist snuff


Skoal W'green

Moist snuff


Hawken W'green

Moist snuff


Bandits W'green

SLT Pouch


Skoal Spearmint

Moist snuff



Chewing tobacco


Red Man

Chewing Tobacco


Bandits Mint

SLT Pouch


This research was supported by the Tobacco Research Fund (UAB).

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