Despite the fact that the epidemiological evidence linking cigarette smoking with cardiovascular disease is overwhelming, the precise components of cigarette smoke responsible for this relationship and the mechanisms by which they exert their effect have not yet been elucidated. There are however, some promising pointers as a result of recent developments and this review concentrates on new evidence since earlier reviews of this topic. It is now known that the endothelium has a vastly more important role than was ever thought to be the case a decade ago. Its role in health and disease is increasingly understood, as is the relationship between endothelial injury and the development of atherosclerosis. There is considerable evidence that cigarette smoking can result in both morphological and biochemical disturbances to the endothelium both in vivo and in cell culture systems. Cigarette smoke is a complex mixture and only a few components have been extensively studied. Nicotine and carbon monoxide are much less damaging than is whole smoke. However the free radical components of cigarette smoke have been shown to cause damage in model systems. Further work will be necessary to consolidate the evidence base but the data reported in this review suggest that the free radical components of cigarette smoke may be responsible for the morphological and functional damage to endothelium that has been observed in model systems
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