“People smoke for nicotine, but they die from the tar.”
- Michael Russel - The Grandfather of Tobacco Harm Reduction
The world of public health and science vilified nicotine since the early studies of tobacco that took place during the 1960’s and 1970’s. This chemical received little positive press since scientists discovered that cigarettes and tobacco products have a strong link to causing cancer.
But, could what much of the public believes about nicotine be false? Could the effects of this mild stimulant be less harmful than what many people believe? We wanted to take a look at the potential dangers of nicotine and what the truth is about its effects on health. This article is going to answer the question "is nicotine harmful" looks ar the health effects of nicotine, the perceptions of nicotine that have pervaded public opinion, and the potential benefits (that’s right, benefits) that nicotine may hold.
NICOTINE DOES NOT CAUSE CANCER OR HEART DISEASE.
Nicotine has shown no evidence of causing heart disease or cancer. Michael Russel, the person that many consider to be the grandfather of tobacco harm reduction, stated in 1976, “People smoke for nicotine, but they die from the tar.”
While cigarettes and cigars may cause cancer, it is not the nicotine producing this effect. One of the hallmark works examining the effects of nicotine on health, “Nicotine Safety and Toxicity” by Neil Borowitz, found that nicotine poses no significant cardiovascular risk and that nicotine on its own does not act as a cancer causing agent. The book examined the effects of nicotine when it was used in a way that did not include smoking and found that there were no adverse health effects.
HOW DID NICOTINE GET SUCH A NEGATIVE IMAGE?
The idea that nicotine could be relatively harmless goes against the prevailing beliefs held by many people around the world. The Royal Society of Public Health in the UK conducted a study that examined the beliefs that average citizens held about nicotine. Their study discovered that 90% of the UK population believed nicotine to be the primary cancer-causing agent in cigarettes. This idea is far from true. The RSPH encouraged the idea that the risks associated with nicotine are not that far off from the risks associated with the caffeine that millions of people consume with their morning coffee every day.
When anti-smoking campaigns began, nicotine was not separated from harmful tobacco smoke, but rather grouped together with it in a way that caused a significant number of people to believe that nicotine was in itself a scourge on health.
Famous cartoons came out featuring characters like “Nick O’Teen” who cartoonists portrayed as an evil villain attempting to get children hooked on cigarettes.
These images and the lumping of nicotine into the same category as tobacco smoke presented an image to the public that nicotine itself was the destructive cancer causing agent.
WHY THE FALSE IMAGE OF NICOTINE POSES A SIGNIFICANT RISK?
Smoking is the number one preventable cause of death in the world. Current numbers suggest that over one billion people will die as a result of tobacco smoking or other tobacco related products over the next century.
When people associate nicotine with cancer, they tend to avoid taking or using various types of nicotine replacement therapies such as gum, nicotine patches, or vaporizers. If a smoker believes that nicotine is the leading cause of harm in cigarettes, they are less likely to use a safer alternative that may help them to quit.
When people begin to understand that nicotine is not the menace it was once painted to be, it’s likely that people want to smoke tobacco less and use tobacco nicotine products more.
Whether or not nicotine is addictive is not a question. It is addictive.
However, the degrees of addiction can vary depending on the ways in which people ingest nicotine. Smoking delivers a rapid hit of nicotine directly to the brain. This quick action happens because of the method of ingestion. Many cigarettes contain additives that break down the resistance to nicotine and deliver it to the brain quicker, thus resulting in greater addiction potential.
Alternatives to smoking, including vaping, patches, and gum, deliver nicotine in a slower fashion. This altered method of uptake reduces the potential strength of the addiction.
These facts beg the question, should nicotine be considered dangerous on its own? Is an addiction to something that is relatively harmless all that bad? Marcus Munafo, a psychologist at Bristol University, questions the assumption.
“Should we really be that bothered about addiction in and of itself, if it doesn’t come with any other substantial harms?” he stated, “It’s at least a discussion we need to have.”
BENEFITS OF NICOTINE
At the opposite end of the spectrum of nicotine’s potential addictive properties comes the benefits of nicotine. A Duke University Medical Center Study discovered that nicotine could improve the mood and focus in those who have ADHD.
Multiple studies have also discovered that nicotine may act as a cognitive enhancer. Oregon Health Sciences University found that nicotine was effective in increasing alertness in non-smokers and smokers alike.
Thames Valley University concluded that nicotine could also act as a memory improving substance. In a studythat examined non-smokers, when chewing nicotine gum participants produced a marked increase in short-term memory.
Nicotine also holds the promise of helping those who have Parkinson’s Disease. The Michael J. Fox Foundation is examining the promise of nicotine as a potential aid in treating the horrible condition. They determined that current smokers are up to 60 percent less likely to develop Parkinson’s Disease than non-smokers. Another study conducted by Marya Quik and published in the scientific journal Annals of Neurology found that monkeys who ingested nicotine showed marked reductions in the tremors and tics that plague those with Parkinson’s.
While nicotine may hold the risk of addiction, the potential dangers it poses to public health are benign. The current view of nicotine held by the public must change to make progress in reducing the number one cause of preventable death in the world.