I've always thought that nicotine has really bad health effects.

Interestingly enough, I've found the following statement on the website of one of the major Nicotine Replacement Therapy products producers:

Myths: Nicotine is carcinogenic
Fact: Nicotine is not proven to cause cancer. There are more than 4,000 other chemicals in cigarette smoke, many of which are known to cause cancer. In particular it is the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and nitrosamines that are the probable causative agents for lung and other cancers. The risks associated with NRT, to aid with nicotine withdrawal, significantly outweighed by the risks of smoking.

Myths: Nicotine causes the diseases related to smoking
Fact: Cigarettes are a well-known cause of cancer, chronic lung disease, heart disease, and other disorders. It is the myriad of toxins in cigarette smoke, rather than the nicotine content, that is responsible for the majority of the harmful effects. In other words, it is the delivery system, not the addictive drug, which is responsible for the vast majority of tobacco-related diseases.

Myths: Nicotine is responsible for adverse health effects related to smoking
Fact: The main adverse nicotine effect in tobacco products is nicotine addiction, which sustains tobacco use. Because most smokers are nicotine-dependent, they continue to expose themselves to toxins from cigarettes. It is the other chemicals in cigarettes, not nicotine, which are responsible for most of the adverse health effects

In other words, the only thing one should be worried about with nicotine is the addiction that—potentially—comes with it (and they actually say that it's only addictive when smoked because of the "hit").

Why not use nicotine to achieve its beneficial effects?

At low doses, nicotine potently enhances the actions of norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain, causing a drug effect typical of those of psychostimulants. At higher doses, nicotine enhances the effect of serotonin and opiate activity, producing a calming, pain-killing effect.
source


The question: while there is little doubt that NRT products help a bit to quit smoking, the statements on Nicorette's web site seem to me quite unbelievable. What is actually proven about the safety or toxicity of nicotine?

  • Everything has an MSDS today, so it's quite easy to know about toxicity. Anyway, if nicotine should get used as a drug, it needs to have fewer side-effects (and be less likely to cause serious harm on an overdose) than existing medication it is supposed to replace. The toxicity of nicotine might be a problem here, but it is without doubt that nicotine affects your brain, so it is plausible that it could be used in psychiatry. – Jonas Jun 26 '11 at 2:11
  • I've heard that three drops of pure nicotine is enough to kill someone. I don't know whether it's true or not, but even if it is, it may not be relevant. Even too much dihydrogen monoxide can kill you. – Andrew Grimm Jun 26 '11 at 3:35
  • @Andrew Grimm: It may be a bit more than three drops, but the lethal dose is still very relevant. It is very hard to accidentially kill yourself with water, because the deadly dose is a lot higher than the common consumption. However, a drug where one drop is required to get the desired effect, but two drops will kill you is a bit like using a gun to pull teeth. – Jonas Jun 26 '11 at 13:49
up vote 6 down vote accepted

Nicotine is a toxin, which is why plants produce it for self-protection. This is not usually an issue for smokers or those on NRT used as specified because of the dosage levels, but can be for tobacco workers and those using it as an insecticide.

As nicotine is a physical stimulant (though it can also act as a relaxant), NRT is often seen as unsuitable for those with heart or circulation conditions.

The biggest problem is that the most popular form of taking nicotine is smoking, which involves a lot of other nasties. I suspect that that is because smoking delivers nicotine in a "better way" in some sense for the smoker (whether this is the stenghth or speed of the hit, or the ease of control of the dose, I don't know), as otherwise more people would have switched to other forms of delivery.

  • Snus has many fans in Sweden, and chewing tobacco among MLB. I reckon the absorption is only a little slower through the mouth tissue than through the lung. Snus is discussed as a method of harm reduction. – Ruben Jun 26 '11 at 14:54
  • Nicotine can kill you(en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicotine_poisoning ) even with out any additives or other properties of tobacco. – Chad Jun 27 '11 at 17:27
  • 1
    Many substances can kill a person when given in large enough amounts. – Phyllostachys Jul 7 '11 at 13:53
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    Nicotine has the nice property compared to many toxins that the pleasurable effects are self limiting (in technical terms nicotine blocks the receptors it activates to give you the hit meaning extra nicotine doesn't give an extra hit until the body has cleared the original dose). It will kill you if you take too much but you won't do that because you crave the hit. And pleasure comes at a much smaller dose than toxicity. – matt_black Jan 10 '12 at 15:03

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