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The Tobacco Control Act requires public disclosure of information about toxic constituents in cigarette smoke. To inform these efforts, we studied public understanding of cigarette smoke constituents.We conducted phone surveys with national probability samples of adolescents (n=1125) and adults (n=5014) and an internet survey with a convenience sample of adults (n=4137), all in the USA. We assessed understanding of cigarette smoke constituents in general and of 24 specific constituents.Respondents commonly and incorrectly believed that harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke mostly originate in additives introduced by cigarette manufacturers (43–72%). Almost all participants had heard that nicotine is in cigarette smoke, and many had also heard about carbon monoxide, ammonia, arsenic and formaldehyde. Less than one-quarter had heard of most other listed constituents being in cigarette smoke. Constituents most likely to discourage respondents from wanting to smoke were ammonia, arsenic, formaldehyde, hydrogen cyanide, lead and uranium. Respondents more often reported being discouraged by constituents that they had heard are in cigarette smoke (all p<0.05). Constituents with names that started with a number or ended in ‘ene’ or ‘ine’ were less likely to discourage people from wanting to smoke (all p<0.05).Many people were unaware that burning the cigarette is the primary source of toxic constituents in cigarette smoke. Constituents that may most discourage cigarette smoking have familiar names, like arsenic and formaldehyde and do not start with a number or end in ene/ine. Our findings may help campaign designers develop constituent messages that discourage smoking.