How addictive is nicotine?

Nicotine is highly addictive. We explore just how much and why here.

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Oh yes. Nicotine is addictive. But how addictive? And why? We explore here.

Nicotine addiction statistics

Nicotine dependence is the most common form of chemical dependence in the United States. Although reasons people start smoking vary by person, most people do not know that the odds are that if they start, they will not stop. Of those people who start smoking during adolescence, 80% become lifetime smokers. And of the 35 million of smokers who try to quit on their own each year, 85% + relapse, most within a week. And another statistic for you: half of all smokers who have heart attacks keep smoking, even though their doctor warns them to stop.

If that’s not enough, check out these tobacco industry quotes about nicotine addiction:

“I believe the thing we sell most is nicotine.” Philip Morris memo, 1980.

“The cigarette should not be construed as a product but a package. The product is nicotine. Think of a puff of smoke as the vehicle for nicotine.” Philip Morris researcher, 1972.

“Very few consumers are aware of the effects of nicotine, i.e., its addictive nature and that nicotine is a poison.” Brown & Williamson memo by H.D. Steele, 1978.

How nicotine acts on the body

Nicotine is a naturally occuring chemical found in the tobacco plant. When tobacco is chewed, snuffed or smoked, nicotine enters the body. Different channels of entry include the mucous membranes of the mouth and nose, the skin, or the lungs. After nicotine gets into the bloodstream, it is then circulated throughout the brain.

Nicotine activates reward pathways in the brain that regulate feelings of pleasure. In fact, research has shown that nicotine increases levels of dopamine in the reward circuits. This reaction has also been observed with other drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Additionally, nicotine affects the entire body. Nicotine acts directly on the heart to increase heart rate and blood pressure. Nicotine also acts on the nerves that control respiration to change breathing patterns.

However, all of these effects are short lived. The acute effects of nicotine lessen quickly, as do the associated feelings of reward. It is this short, intense “kick” which keeps tobacco users returning to tobacco. A continue dosing of nicotine is required to maintain the drug’s pleasurable effects and, after you become addicted to it, to prevent nicotine withdrawal.

How do you get addicted to nicotine?

Nicotine is as addictive as heroin, cocaine, or alcohol (or more addictive). For many tobacco users, long term brain changes induced by continued nicotine exposure result in addiction. But how does nicotine addiction happen and what can you do about it?

Nicotine addiction occurs over time. Nicotine is insidious. Nicotine effects are intense, but short-lived. Every time you inhale a tobacco smoke, you deliver nicotine to the brain. And although 1-2 mg per cigarette may not seem like much, it is enough to make someone addicted over time. It’s this tiny dose of nicotine, repeated over and over again that compels a 10-30 cigarette/day habit. Think – at 10 hits per cigarettes, that’s 100-300 doses of nicotine every day!

Characteristics of nicotine addiction

Two main traits characterize nicotine addiction: physical characteristics of tolerance and withdrawal combined with mental craving.

1. Physical dependence – If you use tobacco products that contain nicotine again and again, your body will first develop a tolerance for it. When that happens, you need more nicotine to get the same effect that you originally enjoyed. Plus, when you stop using nicotine, you will go through nicotine withdrawal. Although an average nicotine withdrawal timeline takes place over a few weeks, most people go back to nicotine just to ease symptoms and discomfort.

2. Psychological craving – Over time, not only will physical tolerance develop, but so will psychological dependence. It is often the mental and emotional aspect of addiction that is so difficult for people to master.

What can you do to control addiction to nicotine?

You might be able to control nicotine addiction simply through will power. Other people find it helpful to use over-the-counter and prescription medications to replace nicotine and relieve the symptoms of withdrawal. But in the end, psychological treatment can help immensely when trying to kick the habit. Nicotine addiction treatment programs help people learn about and change their behaviors.

Need help to quit nicotine?

Please let us know. Ask a question. Share something about yourself. Or just let us know what you are thinking. We respond to all queries and struggles personally. You can comment below or email us.

Reference sources: Tobbaco Industry Quotes
NIDA for teens topic on tobacco addiction
CDC topic on nicotine addiction
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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