Nicotine. It’s a colorless to pale yellow, oily liquid with the formula C10H14N2.

Nicotine sulfate has been used as an insecticide.

According to an authoritative chemical reference, nicotine has an “acrid burning taste.” That could explain why tobacco companies have long touted nicotine as a source of flavor in smoke.

But despite claims to the contrary, some tobacco executives have privately called the chemical addictive.

Anti-tobacco campaigners are convinced that nicotine is addictive. But they say it might not be so bad in and of itself if it were not delivered in a deadly vehicle like cigarette smoke. But by addicting a person to a deadly brew of chemicals, they say, nicotine contributes to 400,000 deaths per year in the United States alone.

Is nicotine addictive in the sense that heroin, cocaine and alcohol are addictive?

The Food and Drug Administration has answered this question in the affirmative, forming the basis for rules restricting marketing and sales of cigarettes to minors. Among other things, these would prohibit tobacco billboards within 1,000 feet of schools, eliminate most cigarette vending machines and require the tobacco companies to foot the bill for an ad campaign warning children against the dangers of smoking. In the proposed rule, the campaign was budgeted at $150-million annually, but a figure was not included in the final rules.

Clearly, the answer to whether nicotine is addictive depends on your definition of addiction, or “dependence,” which the psychology industry often prefers, since it carries fewer negative connotations. According to the bible for classifying psychiatric disorders (see “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual…”. “The essential feature of Substance Dependence is a cluster of cognitive, behavioral and physiological symptoms indicating that the individual continues use of the substance despite significant substance-related problems” (p. 176). Furthermore, “nicotine dependence and withdrawal can develop with use of all forms of tobacco…” (p. 242).

Hallmarks of Addiction

University of Vermont professor John Hughes, an expert on nicotine dependence, says the scientific consensus is that “the core of the issue [over dependence] is the loss of control over use. The drug controls you — you don’t control the drug.”

Specifically:

  • You’re not able to stop using it when you decide to
  • You use the drug despite clear evidence that it is harming you
  • There are clear withdrawal symptoms — including, in the case of nicotine, depressed mood, insomnia, irritability and difficulty concentrating

According to these standards, says Hughes, who is past president of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco, “there’s no doubt that nicotine produces addiction.” He also cites anecdotal evidence about the strength of the compulsion for nicotine — or tobacco smoke containing nicotine. “If you put people in a position where it’s hard to get, they will go to great lengths to get cigarettes. From World War II, there are records of starving people trading food for cigarettes in concentration camps.”

But is nicotine really addictive in the same way that heroin, cocaine and alcohol are addictive?

Not exactly… Still, Hughes acknowledges that nicotine differs from such drugs of abuse as alcohol, heroin and cocaine.

Most obviously, it doesn’t cause intoxication, so you can’t tell whether someone is on it. Public discussions of nicotine addiction, he says, often get “confused” on this score — with a bit of help from tobacco companies, which fear having their product branded “addictive.”

Although the U.S. Office of the Surgeon General did not dwell on the addictive nature of nicotine until its 1988 report on smoking and health, University of California cardiologist Stanton Glantz charges that the cigarette companies have long known about the drug’s capacity for hooking smokers. “The evidence that nicotine was addictive was convincing to Brown & Williamson in 1963,” he says, referring to internal documents he described in the newly published book The Cigarette Papers.

Although the tobacco companies have insisted that addictive drugs all produce intoxication, and therefore nicotine does not qualify, Hughes counters that “intoxication is not the center of the problem. Dependence — the inability to stop – is at the core.”

Ironically, Hughes says this inability to intoxicate could actually boost nicotine’s potential for causing dependence, since “you can take nicotine many times and still work, still function.”

Oddly, the numbers show that nicotine is more likely to entrap users than addictive drugs that do cause intoxication. “If 100 people experiment with alcohol or cocaine, about 10 percent will become addicted,” Hughes says, versus 20 to 25 percent of those who take nicotine. “So experimenting with nicotine is more likely to lead to dependence. Yet we have it reversed in our cultural norms,” which stigmatize alcohol and cocaine more than cigarettes.

Hughes points to yet another reason why nicotine is likely to produce dependence, particularly among the young: the drug’s ability to “do so many things in so many situations.” Since many of these effects – controlling hunger, concentration, anger and mood – are exactly what many adolescents seek, and since this “drug can do this every single time, quickly and reliably, it’s no wonder kids take up smoking.”