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How Addictive Is Nicotine?

March 4, 2022

Cigarettes have long been perceived as something chic, cool, and hip people enjoy in their spare time. Dangling from their lips or held gently between their fingers, these people exude a je ne sais quoi that many people aspire to obtain in their lives. For others, cigarettes provide a moment of reprieve from the hustle and bustle of modern-day life. This is especially true at the office, where a smoke break is the ultimate opportunity to escape from an annoying coworker, the monotony of paperwork, or the stress of presentation preparation.

Yet these seemingly innocent moments of relaxation hide the dangers of cigarette smoking. While historically cigarette smoking was considered merely a bad habit because it did not cause intoxication or impairment, the presence of nicotine makes them highly addictive. In fact, nicotine is as addictive as opioids, alcohol, and cocaine.

Like these other addictive substances, nicotine directly impacts neurotransmitters in the brain. In particular, nicotine increases the level of dopamine released in the reward circuits of the brain. These increased dopamine levels make a nicotine user temporarily feel good, and often the high from nicotine is higher than the high provided by other addictive substances. Because nicotine is inhaled into the lungs, it is quickly absorbed in the bloodstream and delivered to the brain. This quick method of delivery takes about 10 seconds from the time a user inhales until they feel the effects. However, this quick delivery has drawbacks: the effects often subside in minutes and the body removes half the level of nicotine within two hours. This rapid removal can lead users to seek more nicotine products to maintain the same level of high over a long period of time.

Nicotine also impacts the areas of the brain responsible for managing stress, self-control, and those involved in the learning process. Some smokers report being able to stay focused and retain information better following their cigarettes. The presence of nicotine can temporarily boost some cognitive functions. However, when someone stops using nicotine products, or waits for an extended time between uses, the withdrawal symptoms can make it difficult to focus and remember details. In addition, long term use of nicotine products is associated with an overall cognitive decline in users, and increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease.

Alongside these physical aspects of addiction, repeated nicotine use is reinforced by mental and environmental factors. Many people associate nicotine use with good times like sitting outside after lunch with colleagues, drinks with friends, or in the morning with a good cup of coffee. In these instances, nicotine becomes linked to the happy and relaxed emotions users experience, and can eventually become inseparable. These associations can lead nicotine users to constantly use nicotine products to recreate the same emotions, or as a coping mechanism to deal with high-stress situations.

Recently, many nicotine users have been looking for alternatives to cigarettes to satisfy their cravings. Some users were worried about the chemicals and substances that were added into cigarettes, like tobacco, formaldehyde, lead, arsenic, ammonia, hydrogen cyanide, and tar. Many of these chemicals are found in rat poisons, car exhaust, and household cleaners. Others were tired of the process of going out for a cigarette and the growing restrictions on public smoking spaces. For these nicotine users, vaping provided the perfect substitute.

When vaping devices were first introduced in the early 2000s, they were advertised as being healthier than cigarettes, because they did not contain the chemicals and substances added to cigarettes. They also were easier to use. Instead of having to pull out a cigarette, find a match or a lighter, make an excuse to go outside, and finally light the cigarette, a vape user only had to pull the device out of their pocket and puff. One pod also contained the same amount of nicotine found in 20 cigarettes, making it a small and convenient package people could carry in their pockets. The lack of a “cigarette” smell or taste, thanks to the addition of artificial flavors in the nicotine liquid, made vaping appealing to people who disliked the taste and smell of tobacco products. The lack of real smoke also allowed users to smoke whenever they liked, including in spaces that had been declared “smoke free”.

Despite the early promotion of vaping as a healthy alternative, recent research has shown that vaping is just as bad, if not worse than smoking traditional cigarettes. This is due in part to the highly concentrated levels of nicotine in the vaping liquid. These liquids also contain some of the same chemicals as cigarettes, such as formaldehyde, nickel, and lead. Vapes also carry the same health risks as other nicotine products. Users have a risk of developing lung damage, heart disease, and permanent alterations to their neurotransmitters and brain chemical activity. The addition of flavors to the nicotine liquid makes vaping also triggers emotional and mental links traditionally associated with foods users love and crave.

To answer the question, nicotine is highly addictive. It’s just as easy, if not easier, to develop an addiction to nicotine. If you think that you or a loved one might be suffering from a nicotine addiction, seek professional help for treatment options and methods that can lead to a nicotine free life.

At Inspiration Health Addiction Treatment Center we offer an excellent Nicotine Cessation program. Ask one of our specialists about it.

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