How Addictive is Nicotine Really?

From a young age, it’s been beaten into us to avoid smoking at all costs. From hard-hitting ads casting cigarettes in a bad light, to being lectured about how detrimental smoking can be to our health, we certainly couldn’t cover our ears


But even with years of research proving that nicotine addiction is very real, many of us have still fallen into the trap of trying those first drags. Seems like an innocent slip-up at first, but things often end up being a lot more serious than you expect. Whilst it’s easy to think addiction is beneath you, here’s a harsh truth to put things into perspective: 


Nicotine is more addictive than heroin. 


Yup, you read that right. 


Like most drugs, nicotine causes dependence. This leads to addiction, which is hard enough to shake off no matter how mild. But with a chemical as pesky as nicotine, things can easily get problematic. With smoking addiction having been named the most common form of dependency of the nation, research reveals it can be more severe than heroin, cocaine and alcohol. Now, that is reason enough to stop nicotine from sneaking into your life. 


But how do you actually become addicted? According to the 2010 Surgeon General’s Report, the first few cigarettes are always a choice. Things change quickly though, with nicotine altering the chemical balance in your brain. From there on, the habit of smoking is established and becomes part of your routine. You end up associating nicotine with those feel-good moments of relaxation, and the troublesome practice becomes connected to your daily activities. 



Nicotine acts fast


Once inhaled, the chemical is distributed towards your bloodstream. From there on, it reaches the brain within 10 seconds only, which is faster than any other drug entering the body through the veins. Once absorbed, nicotine messes with your body beyond belief, from increasing your heartbeat and blood pressure, to even altering the way you metabolise food. 


The psychological effects are also pretty shocking. Nicotine works by stimulating your nervous system to release specific chemical messages, being responsible for a hormone called epinephrine (also known as adrenaline). The chemical also activates a part of your brain which releases dopamine - a neurotransmitter responsible for pleasurable sensations, making you associate smoking with a buzz, relaxation or relief of tension. 


With so much happening to our bodies when nicotine makes its way in, there is no wonder why the sensation can easily get you hooked. 



Busting the myths 


Nicotine by itself doesn’t kill. According to Professor Kathleen Hoke, who specialises in public health law at University of Maryland, its effects on adults don’t even come close to it. What does kill though is the chemical mix found in nicotine products. ‘If all you did when you inhaled cigarette smoke was just inhale nicotine, we wouldn’t see the kinds of risks, health harms and burdens we see’ says Nancy Rigotti, director of Tobacco Research Treatment Center at Massachusetts General Hospital.  


Simultaneously, the mix of chemicals contained in a cigarette isn’t addictive by itself, but it wreaks havoc on your health. From Acetone (found in nail polish removal), to butane (used in lighter fluid) and even arsenic (a known rat poison component), the list is pretty terrifying. Whilst you wouldn’t knowingly inhale these chemicals, they’re all topped off with nicotine, which we learnt is uber-addictive. Think of it as Mary Poppins’s ‘spoonful of sugar’, nicotine is the one tricking your brain into inhaling all the nasties.  



The world needed a solution


With studies proving that nicotine isn’t necessarily the bad guy when talking solely about health concerns, corporations have quickly rolled up their sleeves and created an array of products that promise to satisfy your cravings without messing with your health. The vape/e-cigarette industry was built on good intentions. Whilst ditching some of the harmful chemicals found in traditional cigarettes, e-cigs still deliver nicotine - sometimes, in ever larger quantities than traditional combustion cigarettes. 



Banking up off addiction 


With Big Tobacco hiding behind the highly addictive properties of nicotine and profiting from addiction, ingredient lists can easily get lost in translation. With so many people heavily addicted to the chemical, corporations can easily mask the harmful ingredients hiding behind it, making it easy to sell broken promises to wishful quitters. But, like with all addiction, there is a way out.