Overview: Most smokers don’t think of themselves
as drug addicts, but that’s what they are. In fact, the drug
they’re addicted to — nicotine — is one of the most powerfully
addictive substances in the whole chemical kingdom. That’s why
so many smokers (and users of other nicotine-based products)
find it so hard to stop, in spite of the many risks linked to
Forms: Nicotine occurs naturally only in the tobacco plant,
which is native to North America. Used mostly for ceremonial
purposes by Native Americans, tobacco’s drug effects were not
lost on early explorers, who introduced it to Europe. Although
tobacco was used traditionally as a snuff or smoked in pipes
or cigars, cigarettes became dominant in the 20th Century. Today,
nicotine is also sold as gum, patches, and inhalers. Drug levels
vary in each product.
Actions/Effects: Absorbed via the alveoli in the lungs
or the mucous membranes in the nose and mouth, nicotine unleashes
a rapid release of adrenaline, which increases blood pressure
and heart rate, and steps up activity of the neurotransmitter
dopamine, causing a range of other effects. To addicted users,
nicotine triggers both stimulant and calming effects.
Risks/Side Effects: Early side effects include dizziness
and nausea until users develop tolerance to nicotine’s drug effects.
Most of the long-term risks associated with nicotine use are
linked to the tars, toxic gases, and particulates in tobacco
smoke, which can cause cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and
Medical Uses: Recent research has shown that small
doses of nicotine delivered by skin patches may help those with
Alzheimer’s disease and attention deficit disorder (ADD) maintain
concentration and improve short-term memory.
Addiction: Nicotine creates both a physical and
psychological addiction, often resulting in intense and persistent
craving. Withdrawal can be eased via nicotine replacement devices
or the medical use of antidepressant drugs.
Trends: Under terms of a recent national court settlement,
the tobacco industry is barred from targeting promotions at young
people and must even develop anti-tobacco campaigns to reduce
use. But they’ve sure got their work cut out for them. At last
count, 45.9 million American adults were still puffing away and
another 8.6 million were using smokeless tobacco products.
Demographics: Although use among young people had
been on the upswing in the 1990’s, national surveys have reflected
a steady drop in smoking in recent years. In fact, previous-month
use among high-school seniors has fallen by more than a third
in the past decade — sliding from 31.4 percent in 2000 to 19.2
percent in 2010.