Chapter 11: Is Nicotine Addictive?

© 2000, Lauren A. Colby. Version 2.5

Chapter 11: Is Nicotine Addictive?

Much of the rhetoric of the anti-smoking movement seeks to demonize tobacco smokers as "nicotine addicts". In the past, of course, the term "addict" has been generally applied only to mind-altering drugs, e.g., heroin and cocaine. Even alcohol, which is mind-altering, is not generally referred to as "additive". So, the argument is one of semantics. If nicotine is addictive, so are chocolate candies, pies and cakes, etc. Indeed, if "addiction" is defined as dependence upon some chemical, everyone is addicted, to air!

I am not going to engage in a philosophical debate over the definition of "addiction". There is a question in my mind, however, as to whether nicotine is really the active ingredient in tobacco smoke..

Nicotine is a chemical, C10H 14N 2, which is found in the tobacco plant. Anti-smokers are quick to point out that pure nicotine is a poison, used as a pesticide. And it's true that pure nicotine (a colorless, odorous liquid), is poisonous. According to the mens that to kill a 180 lb man, he'd have to drink about 80 mg of the stuff. Many other common substances, however, also have minimum lethal doses. According to the same source, ingesting a gram of caffeine is fatal.

In fact, many substances which are beneficial in small quantities are toxic in large quantities. My mother suffered a stroke some years ago. Her life was saved, and she recovered, by taking a blood ll, so he doubled it. My mother began hemorrhaging, and almost died from loss of blood. The blood thinner, which is life saving in small quantities, proved toxic in large quantities.

Of course, most of the nicotine in tobacco is lost in the process of smoking. Only a little finds its way into the smoker's bloodstream. That small quantity may account for some of the beneficial effects of smoking, e.g., improved mental concentration. Strangely, fine Havana cigars, when they were available, contained only 2% nicotine. If, in fact, nicotine is the reason why people smoke, it seems strange that people would pay enormous amounts of money for Havana cigars, which contain so little nicotine.

I question, however, whether nicotine is the active ingredient in tobacco. If it were, nicotine patches should satisfy a smoker's craving for tobacco; they don't! In prisons, where, as a part of the punishment, smoking is sometimes forbidden, the inmates take to smoking corn silk, paper, string, etc., none of which contain any nicotine.

When I was a young man, there was a chain of tobacco stores which sold cheap cigars. They were made almost entirely from brown paper, with only one outside wrapper made from tobacco. I doubt they contained any significant amount of nicotine. Yet, they were a satisfying smoke.

Recently, anti-smoking forces have suggested taking the nicotine out of cigarettes, to discourage smoking. This assumes, of course, that smokers smoke to get nicotine. In their book, "Life Extension", health writers Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw, take a different approach. Believing that smoke is bad for health but that nicotine is not, Pearson and Shaw suggest that cigarettes be spiked with extra nicotine, so that smokers will consume fewer cigarettes.

It is not universally accepted, however, that nicotine is the active ingredient in tobacco smoke. The authors of the widely respected "Merck Manual" say only that it is "probably" the active ingredient. If, in fact, the anti-smokers finally succeed in getting the tobacco companies to remove the nicotine from cigarettes, we will finally find out the truth. My own bet is that a cigarette without nicotine will probably be almost as satisfying as one with nicotine. The active ingredient in smoke is smoke.

Recent studies, reported by the National Institute on Drug Addiction (NIDA), seem to bear out my hunch. These studies suggest that tobacco contains a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI). MAOI's are anti-depressants, which work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. They are used in medicine to treat Parkinson's disease, which may explain why a number of studies have shown that smokers have a far lower rate of Parkinson's than non-smokers. In any event, the MAOI in tobacco smoke may play as great a role in smoking as nicotine.