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Why is Nicotine Addictive

Last week we looked at a new study which suggested that e-cigarettes are less addictive that tobacco. This got us thinking about whether nicotine is really that addictive, if it is what makes people smoke tobacco. We said we would do some research and report back here, and here it is.

Opinions Differ on the Addictiveness of Nicotine and E-Cigarettes

Opinions differ vastly amongst the experts and even the public, here are just a few of the responses we received on the subject:

“Nicotine is addictive to the extreme. So why are e-cigarettes that contain nicotine being trumpeted as the answer to the death and misery caused by smoking”  

“Nicotine is without doubt a nasty and addictive drug. It simply beggars belief that ecigarettes containing it can be sold in shops without regulation. The tobacco industry hides behind the mantra that tobacco is a legal product. However, how many other products or food stuffs, would be allowed on the shelves if they were proven to be carcinogenic? The answer is none.”

“Addictiveness to nicotine is measured not by the substance, but the delivery system. Yes, nicotine does have addictive qualities but ecigarettes are less proficient at delivering nicotine to the blood stream than tobacco cigarettes and that’s the reason why e-cigarettes are less addictive. If pure nicotine was drank by the cup it would probably be just as addictive as caffeine. Yet coffee is sold everywhere and nobody gives a second thought that they are addicted to the stuff”

“There is not a single scrap of evidence (never mind a clinical trial) that proves nicotine is 'addictive' unless it is delivered with tobacco smoke. This is why every single clinical trial where pure nicotine was directly administered to never-smokers (in large doses for up to 9 months) report that there no signs of withdrawal symptoms, there was no dependence, and none of the participants continued to use nicotine following the trial. It is also why electronic cigarette users routinely reduce the amount and strength of the nicotine they intake, and why many will eventually give up ecigarettes for good”

“Most people have no idea that tobacco smoking creates a change in brain chemistry which is due to the 9,400 other chemical compounds that are delivered and believed to be cause a permanent or near-permanent change in brain functionality which causes dependence, and that pure nicotine alone has zero observable effect of dependence on never-smokers”

So How Does Addiction Work

When a person says that a particular substance is addictive, they usually mean two different things. Physical addiction, and more accurately physical dependence, this is when your body starts to depend and rely on the presence of the substance for its physical well-being and ability to function. Your body has begun to compensate its normal functions and processes to make adjustments for your new artificial normality. The sudden absence of the substance won’t give your body enough time to compensate. This will result will in withdrawal symptoms and depending on the substance could include nausea, chest pains, head and body aches, vomiting, uncontrollable body sweats, and shortness of breath.

Alcohol is a good example. If you don’t usually drink, and then decide to all of a sudden drink like a college student on a Friday night, your body would not be able to cope, it could not compensate for the sudden intake of booze, nausea will follow, and you will most likely puke, you could have a seizure, you may even become unconscious and could potentially stop breathing. The exact same thing will happen if you have drank like this continuously for years and then suddenly stop. Your body, once again, can-not cope and is unable to compensate for the alcohol intake it considers to be normal.

There are substances that some consider to be addictive, yet they do not cause physical withdrawal symptoms when use is suddenly stopped, these tend to be classified as psychologically addictive, but not physically addictive. This means the person may well still crave for the substance, but they won’t feel the physical withdrawal symptoms that are present with other substances.

High risk behaviors like gambling, skydiving and bungee jumping, and in fact anything considered to be psychologically addictive, do not create physical dependence, as they tend to stimulate the brain reward centres causing the person to crave the particular action and then create further stimulation.

So is Nicotine Really That Addictive

Nicotine is to some extent similar to alcohol and even heroin, in that it has been shown to cause physical dependence, albeit in much lower levels. It has also been shown to produce cravings which can be associated with psychological dependence, again in much lower levels than alcohol or heroin. However, there may be reasons why nicotine should not be classified along with other well-known addictive substances!

Nicotine is produced by a family of plants called solanaceae which are commonly known as nightshade plants. The nicotine content of dried tobacco leaves is around 6%. Nicotine, the drug as it is when combusted with the burning of tobacco affects both the adrenal medulla and the central nervous system. What is still unclear is the impact on acetylcholine receptors within the brain, many still believe that without the combustion from tobacco and the mix of other substances, nicotine would not be addictive.

Nicotine binds with other known neurotransmitters such as dopamine to create a feel good effect, there are no neurotransmitters in e-cigarettes, so it should follow that the addictiveness of nicotine, if any should be much lower in using these devices.

Burning tobacco also produces a number of chemicals known as oxidase monoamine inhibitors and these enzymes contribute to the breaking down of the feel good factor that is produced by dopamine and other neurotransmitters. This results in the craving to smoke, yes for nicotine, but the cycle of smoking, satisfaction and craving is driven by the chemical reaction of nicotine and the combustion of dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine and hundreds of other chemicals in tobacco smoke.  




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