Nicotine Addiction: A Meme to be questioned
The Truth About Nicotine and Smoking
Andrew Rader, LAc, MS
Here are some things to consider that may shake your belief in the widely held meme that nicotine is addictive.
1. When you look at truly addictive substances such as cocaine, opiates, and alcohol, there is a demand for the substance. Nicotine, as an isolated substance has never been popular nor sought after. Pure nicotine is available but has no real market value. People are not doing nicotine. You would think that the much cheaper pure nicotine would take over the market and replace the more expensive cigarette if it were the source of the addiction but it hasn’t.
2. Pure nicotine given to non-smokers does not cause addiction. In a study of never smokers given nicotine gum, the researchers concluded that addiction to the gum is rare. In another trial, pure nicotine was given to never-smokers to examine cognitive function changes. There was no experience of withdrawal nor desire to continue using the nicotine after the trial. If nicotine is considered to be such an addictive substance, then why is it that nicotine given to non-smokers is not addictive?
3. People that smoke do not develop tolerance. This means that people find a particular number of cigarettes/day and stay at that level for many years, if not decades. Other chemical dependencies almost always involve needing to consume increasing amounts of the addictive substance over time to achieve the same level of satisfaction. Not true with tobacco.
4. Smokers who try to quit with nicotine replacement therapies (NRT) are not very successful. If it is about the nicotine, then giving smokers nicotine should replace the desire to smoke. Clearly, this is not the case.
“There is widespread confusion between dependence on smoking and on nicotine. There is no evidence that nicotine, by itself, is ‘addictive’. Because this would be easy to demonstrate but has not been, we must question the grounds on which beliefs in this area are held (we now know that ethics committees do permit this type of research). There is clearly a lack of basic science here.” Professor Robert Molimard, a French expert on tobacco dependence
The problem here is the widespread confusion between the habit of smoking tobacco and the perceived need to isolate the cause of this habit to one substance. Consider that tobacco has thousands of compounds in it. Why should we believe that the habit is caused by one particular substance and not one, or more of the others that we haven’t yet studied? Or maybe the habit of smoking is not based on a chemical dependence. Consider that there are habits that are commonly labeled “addictions”, that have no chemical dependency, such as gambling, computer games, Facebook, shopping, etc. A habit is an activity that is done repeatedly. If it is considered harmful, a “bad habit”, we try to stop the behavior that we have become habituated to. This is naturally a tricky thing to do. Smoking tobacco is a unique behavior that cannot be boiled down to an addiction to a single substance.
Nicotine addiction is a highly controversial subject because it is intertwined with many and varied interest groups that span economic, political, social, and cultural norms. Smoking products, and quitting products, including NRT, are a multi-billion dollar industry. The so called science around nicotine is often tainted by industry money. When it comes to NRT, buyer beware!