Cigarettes and Other Nicotine Products
Nicotine is one of the most heavily used addictive drugs in the United States. Cigarette smoking has
been the most popular method of taking nicotine since the beginning of the 20th century. In 1998,
60 million Americans were current cigarette smokers (28 percent of all Americans aged 12 and
older), and 4.1 million were between the ages of 12 and 17 (18 percent of youth in this age
In 1989, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report that concluded that cigarettes and other forms of
tobacco, such as cigars, pipe tobacco, and chewing tobacco, are addictive and that nicotine is the
drug in tobacco that causes addiction. In addition, the report determined that smoking was a major
cause of stroke and the third leading cause of death in the United States.
Nicotine is highly addictive. It is both a stimulant and a sedative to the central nervous system. The
ingestion of nicotine results in an almost immediate "kick" because it causes a discharge of
epinephrine from the adrenal cortex. This stimulates the central nervous system, and other
endocrine glands, which causes a sudden release of glucose. Stimulation is then followed by
depression and fatigue, leading the abuser to seek more nicotine. Nicotine is absorbed readily from
tobacco smoke in the lungs, and it does not matter whether the tobacco smoke is from cigarettes,
cigars, or pipes.
Nicotine also is absorbed readily when tobacco is chewed. With regular use of tobacco, levels of
nicotine accumulate in the body during the day and persist overnight. Thus, daily smokers or
chewers are exposed to the effects of nicotine for 24 hours each day. Nicotine taken in by cigarette
or cigar smoking takes only seconds to reach the brain but has a direct effect on the body for up to
Research has shown that stress and anxiety affect nicotine tolerance and dependence. The stress
hormone corticosterone reduces the effects of nicotine; therefore, more nicotine must be consumed
to achieve the same effect. This increases tolerance to nicotine and leads to increased dependence.
Studies in animals have also shown that stress can directly cause relapse to nicotine
self-administration after a period of abstinence.
Other studies have shown that animals cannot discriminate between the effects of nicotine and the
effects of cocaine. Studies have also shown that nicotine self-administration sensitizes animals to
self-administer cocaine more readily. Addiction to nicotine results in withdrawal symptoms when a
person tries to stop smoking. For example, a study found that when chronic smokers were deprived
of cigarettes for 24 hours, they had increased anger, hostility, and aggression, and loss of social
cooperation. Persons suffering from withdrawal also take longer to regain emotional equilibrium
following stress. During periods of abstinence and/or craving, smokers have shown impairment
across a wide range of psychomotor and cognitive functions, such as language comprehension.
Women who smoke generally have earlier menopause. If women smoke cigarettes and also take
oral contraceptives, they are more prone to cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases than are
other smokers; this is especially true for women older than 30.
Pregnant women who smoke cigarettes run an increased risk of having stillborn or premature
infants or infants with low birth weight. Children of women who smoked while pregnant have an
increased risk for developing conduct disorders. National studies of mothers and daughters have
also found that maternal smoking during pregnancy increased the probability that female children
would smoke and would persist in smoking.
Adolescent smokeless tobacco users are more likely than nonusers to become cigarette smokers.
Behavioral research is beginning to explain how social influences, such as observing adults or other
peers smoking, affect whether adolescents begin to smoke cigarettes. Research has shown that
teens are generally resistant to many kinds of anti-smoking messages.
In addition to nicotine, cigarette smoke is primarily composed of a dozen gases (mainly carbon
monoxide) and tar. The tar in a cigarette, which varies from about 15 mg for a regular cigarette to 7
mg in a low-tar cigarette, exposes the user to a high expectancy rate of lung cancer, emphysema,
and bronchial disorders. The carbon monoxide in the smoke increases the chance of cardiovascular
The Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that secondhand smoke causes lung cancer in
adults and greatly increases the risk of respiratory illnesses in children and sudden infant death.
Research has shown that nicotine, like cocaine, heroin, and marijuana, increases the level of the
neurotransmitter dopamine, which affects the brain pathways that control reward and pleasure.
Scientists now have pinpointed a particular molecule (the beta 2 subunit of the nicotine cholinergic
receptor) as a critical component in nicotine addiction. Mice that lack this molecule fail to
self-administer nicotine, implying that without the b2 molecule, the mice do not experience the
positive reinforcing properties of nicotine. This new finding identifies a potential site for targeting
the development of anti-nicotine addiction medications.
Other new research found that individuals have greater resistance to nicotine addiction if they have
a genetic variant that decreases the function of the enzyme CYP2A6. The decrease in CYP2A6
slows the breakdown of nicotine and protects individuals against nicotine addiction. Understanding
the role of this enzyme in nicotine addiction gives a new target for developing more effective
medications to help people stop smoking. Medications might be developed that can inhibit the
function of CYP2A6, thus providing a new approach to preventing and treating nicotine addiction.
Another study found dramatic changes in the brain's pleasure circuits during withdrawal from
chronic nicotine use. These changes are comparable in magnitude and duration to similar changes
observed during the withdrawal from other abused drugs such as cocaine, opiates, amphetamines,
and alcohol. Scientists found significant decreases in the sensitivity of the brains of laboratory rats
to pleasurable stimulation after nicotine administration was abruptly stopped. These changes lasted
several days and may correspond to the anxiety and depression experienced by humans for several
days after quitting smoking "cold turkey." The results of this research may help in the development
of better treatments for the withdrawal symptoms that may interfere with individual's attempts to
Research suggests that smoking cessation should be a gradual process because withdrawal
symptoms are less severe in those who quit gradually than in those who quit all at once. Rates of
relapse are highest in the first few weeks and months and diminish considerably after 3 months.
Studies have shown that pharmacological treatment combined with psychological treatment,
including psychological support and skills training to overcome high-risk situations, results in some
of the highest long-term abstinence rates.
Behavioral economic studies find that alternative rewards and reinforcers can reduce cigarette use.
One study found that the greatest reductions in cigarette use were achieved when smoking cost was
increased in combination with the presence of alternative recreational activities.
Nicotine chewing gum is one medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for
the treatment of nicotine dependence. Nicotine in this form acts as a nicotine replacement to help
smokers quit the smoking habit.
The success rates for smoking cessation treatment with nicotine chewing gum vary considerably
across studies, but evidence suggests that it is a safe means of facilitating smoking cessation if
chewed according to instructions and restricted to patients who are under medical supervision.
Another approach to smoking cessation is the nicotine transdermal patch, a skin patch that delivers
a relatively constant amount of nicotine to the person wearing it. A research team at NIDA's
Division of Intramural Research studied the safety, mechanism of action, and abuse liability of the
patch that was consequently approved by FDA. Both nicotine gum and the nicotine patch, as well
as other nicotine replacements such as sprays and inhalers, are used to help people fully quit
smoking by reducing withdrawal symptoms and preventing relapse while undergoing behavioral
Another tool in treating nicotine addiction is a medication that goes by the trademark Zyban. This is
not a nicotine replacement, as are the gum and patch. Rather, this works on other areas of the
brain, and its effectiveness is in helping to make controllable nicotine craving or thoughts about
cigarette use in people trying to quit.
In the future, a nicotine vaccine may be an effective method for preventing and treating tobacco
addiction. The vaccine would prevent nicotine from reaching the brain so as to reduce its effects
and help keep people from becoming addicted.
Scientists recently developed an experimental nicotine vaccine consisting of a nicotine derivative
attached to a large protein. The scientists injected a single dose of nicotine into vaccinated rats and
found that the amount of nicotine reaching the brain was reduced by 64%. Further, the researchers
found that administering doses of nicotine antibodies similar to those that are ordinarily produced by
the vaccine greatly reduced the rise in blood pressure produced by a nicotine injection. The
antibodies also completely prevented the increased movements ordinarily seen when rats are
injected with nicotine.
The next steps will be to conduct additional safety studies, followed by clinical trials with the
vaccine in human volunteers. These clinical trials are currently scheduled to begin in early 2002.