If it weren’t for nicotine, people wouldn’t smoke tobacco. Why? Because of the more than 4000 chemicals in tobacco smoke, nicotine is the primary one that acts on the brain, altering people’s moods, appetites and alertness in ways they find pleasant and beneficial. Unfortunately, as it is widely known, nicotine has a dark side: it is highly addictive. Once smokers become hooked on it, they must get their fix of it regularly, sometimes several dozen times a day. Cigarette smoke contains 43 known carcinogens, which means that long-term smoking can amount to a death sentence. In the US alone, 420,000 Americans die every year from tobacco-related illnesses.
Breaking nicotine addiction is not easy. Each year, nearly 35 million people make a concerted effort to quit smoking. Sadly, less than 7 percent succeed in abstaining for more than a year; most start smoking again within days. So what is nicotine and how does it insinuate itself into the smoker’s brain and very being?
The nicotine found in tobacco is a potent drug and smokers, and even some scientists, say it offers certain benefits. One is enhance performance. One study found that non-smokers given doses of nicotine typed about 5 percent faster than they did without it. To greater or lesser degrees, users also say nicotine helps them to maintain concentration, reduce anxiety, relieve pain, and even dampen their appetites (thus helping in weight control). Unfortunately, nicotine can also produce deleterious effects beyond addiction. At high doses, as are achieved from tobacco products, it can cause high blood pressure, distress in the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems and an increase in susceptibility to seizures and hypothermia.
First isolated as a compound in 1828, in its pure form nicotine is a clear liquid that turns brown when burned and smells like tobacco when exposed to air. It is found in several species of plants, including tobacco and, perhaps surprisingly, in tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant (though in extremely low quantities that are pharmacologically insignificant for humans).