Cigarettes, pipes, cigars and other tobacco products, as well as electronic cigarettes and nicotine chewing gum, all contain nicotine. Beyond the damage caused by smoking itself, nicotine is an addictive substance that is absorbed into the blood and spreads throughout the body within seconds.

Chemically, nicotine is a water-soluble alkaloid with a characteristic odor that in its pure form appears as a clear liquid, but turns brown upon exposure to air.

The immediate effect of nicotine lasts about 10 to 45 minutes after smoking one cigarette, but there are other effects that last for  another hour to two. The effects of nicotine gum used in smoking cessation last for 45 to 120 minutes, with side effects that can last for several hours.

A bit of history

  The tobacco plant came to Europe in the 16th century from the Americas, where Spanish and Portuguese conquerors were exposed to Native American smoking habits. The name nicotine is attributed to Jean-Nicot de Wilman, the French ambassador to Portugal, who sent tobacco seeds to Paris in 1560. Nicotine was first refined in the 19th century, when its chemical formula was discovered, but wasn’t synthesized in a laboratory until 1904. Today the main use of nicotine, other than in tobacco products for smoking, is as an insecticide in agriculture.  

Why do people use nicotine?

  Nicotine actually has a paradoxical effect: it acts as both a stimulant and a relaxant. On the one hand, it increases the heart rate and blood pressure. On the other hand, it relaxes muscles and reduces anxiety. Nicotine also raises dopamine and endorphin levels in the brain, causing a slight euphoric feeling. In addition, nicotine affects various brain functions involved in learning, stress and self-control, and temporarily enhances certain aspects of cognition, such as concentration and memory. Smokers tend to associate smoking, which can arouse pleasant and relaxing sensations, with social settings and activities.  

What are the adverse health effects of nicotine?

  Nicotine damage can not be discussed without emphasizing that much of it is caused by the main delivery form of nicotine – that is, smoking. As is known, smoking has many dangerous harmful effects, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and several cancers, including cancers of the lung, oral cavity, and urinary tract, among others. Smoking also causes other respiratory diseases, such as bronchitis, asthma and emphysema. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), smoking causes about 5 million deaths a year worldwide, about 10,000 of which are in Israel. Apart from being addictive and beyond the effects of smoking, nicotine exposure during pregnancy can impair the mother’s health as well as the development of the fetus, contributing to low birth weight, premature birth, and stillbirth. Nicotine also has an adverse effect on the brain development of children and can lead to poisoning, as well as to behavioral problems and cognitive impairment in adolescents. Studies in animals and humans have found evidence that nicotine increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, gastrointestinal disorders, and more. In addition, nicotine decreases the immune response involved in natural cell death, promotes DNA mutations that may accelerate cell proliferation and cancerous tumors, and can interfere with the activity of chemotherapy, among other drugs. Some studies suggest a link between nicotine addiction and addiction to other substances. Therefore, the recommendation regarding nicotine is to completely abstain from smoking, and to protect pregnant women, children and adolescents from exposure to products containing nicotine and from second-hand smoke.  

Why is it hard to stop using nicotine?

  Once the body adapts to nicotine, it begins to crave higher doses. In smokers, this takes the form of increasing their tobacco intake. (The average amount of nicotine in a cigarette is about 1-2 mg.) What is more, a review of several studies indicates that it is more difficult to quit smoking than to stop using opioid drugs or alcohol. During nicotine withdrawal, individuals may experience various symptoms, which begin in the first hours after discontinuation and may last for several months, including irritability, cravings, depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, and increased appetite.

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