Nicotine: Popularity of Use and Why It’s Harmful

By: Francesca Cocchiarale

Edited by: Bridget Salice

From smoking cigarettes in the late 1900s to vaping today, the popularity of nicotine-based products has never seemed to fade over the last hundred years. A theme can be seen with the start of each trend associated with a new product containing nicotine: the lack of research behind both the short-term and chronic use of the product, and how it affects the health and wellness of different types of demographics. For example, the use of cigarettes was extremely popular in the U.S. starting in the early 20th century, moving through to the 1990s, with peak use being in the 1960s. Physicians and health officials did not see any visible or potential threats when it came to smoking, and some physicians even endorsed the use of cigarettes in TV commercial and radio ads, leading to common use for decades. Today, the scientific and health-based facts both physicians and most of the population know show how harmful the use of cigarettes can be, and this has caused a decrease in the use of these products. Once again, we are faced with the same situation: vaping and E-cigs, as well as other products, have become the new cigarettes, especially for the adolescent demographic. Now, more teens choose to use E-cigs over cigarettes, and those that do choose to pursue this type of drug are more likely to use cigarettes in the future. This form of nicotine-based administration is new, and thus very little is known about the short-term and long-term use of these products. Why is the use of nicotine so popular? How does it affect the brain, and how can it be harmful to certain populations? Though I am not a health professional by any means, I want to explore these questions using the reliable resources I have via the internet and create theories as to why so many people choose to recreationally use nicotine-based products.

Nicotine: Definition and How it Affects the Brain

In its most basic form, nicotine is a chemical that can be found in tobacco-based products. Derived from a plant (with the most common being the tabacum species), it is a colorless liquid that turns brown when it hits the air, where it can be absorbed through the skin and the mucosal lining of the nasal passageway. Though there are a variety of chemicals found in nicotine-based products, nicotine is the chemical that impacts the functioning of the brain the most. Nicotine binds to specific receptors within the central nervous system (consisting of the brain and the spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system (consisting of nerves that reach all other parts of the body). Once nicotine binds to the receptors of interest, it causes the release of dopamine throughout the brain; dopamine is a neurotransmitter that acts on our reward systems, making us feel “good” emotions, such as motivation, happiness, euphoria, and relaxation. Addiction can occur with consistent use of nicotine since repeated times of activation of the reward system leads to tolerance and addiction in certain people (it does not happen in all people that use nicotine-based products, since the occurrence of addiction depends on a lot of factors, such as genetics and environmental conditions). For example, tolerance may occur when someone starts smoking more and more every day. With constant use of cigarettes, nicotine is being funneled into the brain and binding to receptors, causing the brain to get used to this occurrence, also known as desensitization. This can be related to when you get used to performing a song in front of people over time, causing you to be “desensitized” to the scariness of the experience and the people around you. To make up for this period of desensitization, the brain actually changes and creates more receptors so that the body can feel the rewarding effects again, and the person has to smoke more and more to feel the sensations they felt when smoking for the first time. Tolerance of a drug, such as nicotine, can eventually lead to addiction, which can be very harmful.

Because nicotine-based products are very different from each other, different symptoms occur with extended use. Tobacco-based products (cigarettes, chewing-based, etc.) is the cause of ⅓ of all cancers. Symptoms of addiction of nicotine-based products include the following:

  • Increases in blood pressure and heart rate
  • Slight increase in blood sugars and glucose
  • Increase in blood clots
  • Dizziness and lightheadedness
  • Trouble sleeping or falling asleep
  • Indigestion
  • Peptic (stomach) ulcers
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Heartburn
  • Changes in heart rate and heart rhythm (sometimes irregular)
  • High blood pressure
  • Spasms of the lungs

These are just a few of the symptoms that one can experience after extended use of nicotine-based products. Specifically, for women who are pregnant, smoking and the use of nicotine is especially harmful, where symptoms for the child include the following: infertility, high blood pressure, respiratory difficulties, problems with brain development and behavior, and others that inadvertently affect the child. The chronic use of nicotine can also lead to higher risk of developing different types of cancers, including lung cancer, breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, and others associated with the receptor being constantly stimulated and overexpressed.

Kicking the addiction is extremely hard since withdrawal symptoms wreak havoc on a body that has been dependent on the administration of nicotine to feel a certain way. Nicotine is as addictive as heroin or cocaine, and only about 7% of those who chronically smoke quit each year in the U.S. because of how hard it is to do so.

Forms of Administration 

Because each form of administration is different from one another, it is important to know the difference between each product and how it affects the body. Here are some examples of products widely used in the U.S.

  • Electronic Cigarettes (E-Cigs). This category encompasses an assortment of different products: e-cigs, e-hookahs, vape pens or other vape-based products, and other products that are electronically controlled. Most products allow the user to inhale an aerosol, which contains nicotine (most of the time), flavoring, and other chemicals. Puffing usually activates the chamber containing the liquid-based aerosol, which then releases it using a battery-operated system. This has become extremely popular with teens in the last couple of years, with some factors being the accessibility of these products, the gearing of advertisements towards teen populations, and the flavorings within the products. Though many people believe that the use of this product helps those addicted to cigarettes to quit, studies have shown that this is not true; people that use e-cigs are more likely to keep smoking than those that cut themselves off completely.
  • Cigarettes. One of the most common forms of nicotine-based administration, it contains the following basic ingredients: tobacco, chemical additives, a filter, and paper wrapping. Even though there has been a decrease in advertising and availability of cigarettes since discovering how harmful these products are to the human body, there are still advertisements aired on TV today endorsing the product, where smoking is considered a “cool” and “daunting” activity. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., and it causes extensive damage to every organ within the body with chronic use and addiction.
  • Hookah. This form of administration uses water pipes that allow the user to smoke specially made tobacco products with different types of flavorings. Around 22-40% of college students use this form of administration, and many are turning to electronic forms of this device. Though this might seem less harmful than smoking cigarettes, the incorporation of nicotine, and the use of other substances such as charcoal, poses different kinds of health risks that are related to smoking.
  • Chewing Tobacco (Dip). This product is in the form of tobacco leaves of twists that form bundles of leaves, where the user places this within the lip bordering the lower gum, the cheek, or the teeth. The nicotine from the tobacco leaves is absorbed through the mouth tissue, where the chemicals paired with nicotine leaves people at risk of developing mouth, cheek, gum, tongue, esophageal, and pancreatic cancer.

Even though there is not much known about current nicotine-based products, remember to take caution when it comes to your health. Nicotine, in any form of administration, can be harmful and addictive, and this is something to remember when pursuing different activities. When my grandmother was alive, she constantly smoked, and the only thing that made her quit was my brother and I’s presence in her life. Watching her struggle to let go of this nasty habit of smoking caused me to see how impactful addiction is, especially when it came to products that have been acceptable to society. If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction to nicotine or nicotine-based products, visit your primary care physician to plan out methods that will allow quitting to become easier.

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