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Nicotine Addiction

Nicotine Addiction

Nicotine is a psychoactive drug that is experienced sometimes as a stimulant, sometimes as a relaxant. Found in the greatest concentration in the tobacco plant, it is also found in trace quantities in eggplant, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet peppers, and a variety of other plants. Nicotine makes up from 0.3 to 0.5 percent (by weight) of the tobacco plant.

Nicotine Consumption

Nicotine can be consumed in a number of ways. Its effects are felt soonest when inhaling smoke from burning tobacco, but preparations of tobacco can also be chewed, sucked, snorted, or otherwise placed in contact with the blood stream (addicts have been known to slit between their toes and pack the space with chew).  Nicotine can also be found in electronic cigarettes (devices that aerosolize synthetic or pre-extracted nicotine), specialized gums and lozenges (oral absorption), and patches (with which a user absorbs nicotine through his or her skin).  

Addictive Properties

Pharmacologically, repeated studies have found that nicotine is more addictive than heroin and cocaine.  Nicotine increases the activity of rewards pathway brain receptors in charge of dopamine (euphoria, relaxation).  Other compounds in tobacco smoke additionally alter processes that typically break down dopamine, serotonin (well-being, happiness), and norepinephrine (similar to adrenaline).  In dealing with these changes, the brain performs a number of compensatory maneuvers, resultantly making the brain’s rewards pathway more sensitive (heroin and cocaine make the rewards pathway less sensitive).  This alteration can last many months, which helps make nicotine (especially with tobacco coadministration) an extremely difficult addiction to break.

Am I Addicted?

The amount of nicotine required to create an addiction varies between individuals.  Some people are hooked after one cigarette.  Others require a whole pack.  Others can smoke off and on without ever experiencing a craving (though these cases are rare).  Ultimately,  Nicotine addiction is diagnosable through its withdrawal symptoms.  If you feel multiple of the following symptoms, and have been in recent contact with nicotine, you may be experiencing nicotine withdrawal (implying addiction):

  • Tobacco cravings

  • Headache

  • Nausea

  • Unusual bowel-movements

  • Fatigue, insomnia

  • Impatience

  • Poor concentration

  • Anxiety

  • Depressed mood

  • Decreased heart rate

  • Decreased blood pressure

  • Increased hunger/consumption, especially for sweets

Pharmacologically, repeated studies have found that nicotine is more addictive than heroin and cocaine.

Effects of Nicotine Addiction

Short Term:

  • Expense

  • Decreased lung and heart capacity

  • Reduced low-light vision

  • Increased risk of bone fracture

Long Term:

  • Expense!

  • Increased incidence of erectile dysfunction

  • Increased incidence of osteoporosis

  • Increased likelihood of infertility

  • Increased incidence of premature birth/birth defects

  • Increased incidence of lung disease, lung and other cancers, emphysema, pneumonia, and bronchitis

  • Increased susceptibility to cocaine addiction

Treatment Options

Nicotine is one of the most difficult addictions to escape.  Most addicts make multiple failed attempts before they successfully manage to stay away from nicotine products. Nicotine replacement therapy statistically decreases the incidence of relapse among smokers.  Strong support groups, either institutional or friend/family based, also help keep individuals accountable.  At the center of any attempt to quit nicotine must be perseverance. But with dedication, support, and therapy, even severely dependent individuals are capable of escaping nicotine addiction.  


1. Dan Howard. “Plant Sources of Nicotine.”
2. “Effects of Nicotine.”
3. “How to Quit Smoking, Again.”
4. John R. Polito. “Nicotine Addiction 101.”
5. Sandra Blakeslee. “Nicotine: Harder to Kick… than Heroin.”

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