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Nicotine 166 Times More
Deadly than Caffeine?

by John R. Polito, founder of WhyQuit and author of "Freedom from Nicotine - The Journey Home"

WhyQuit.com Coffee cup holding cigarettesAlthough the average manufactured cigarette contains 8 to 10 mg. of nicotine, only about 1 mg. finds its way into the smoker's bloodstream. Is nicotine more lethal than strychnine? Would just 40 to 60 mg. of pure nicotine on the tongue - 3 to 6 drops - kill a 160 pound person?

Although growing dispute over the amount of nicotine needed to kill humans (as lethal doses cannot be tested as with other animals), the 40 to 60 mg. figure tends to suggest that drop for drop nicotine is more toxic than the lethal dose of strychnine (75 mg), diamondback rattlesnake venom (100 mg,) arsenic (200 mg) or cyanide (500 mg).

As deadly as it is, smoked nicotine doesn't arrive alone. Each puff comes with 81 cancer causing chemicals, carbon monoxide and a host of toxins. This cataclysmic combination annually produces the leading cause of death in almost all developed nations, and creates fertile ground for profiteers able to engineer less destructive forms of nicotine delivery.

But what about the alkaloid nicotine itself, the clear liquid comprising roughly 1 to 2% of tobacco's dry weight, that turns brownish when exposed to air? What honest representations can be made in regard to the chemical that stands alone when lethalness and addictiveness are combined?

In a display of audacity reminiscent of 50s and 60s cigarette marketing, an army of pharmaceutical industry nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) consultants, oral tobacco advocates, and well intentioned harm reductionists are engaged in an ongoing campaign to convince the world that nicotine is as safe as caffeine.

"Our strategy is based on the fact that nicotine, while addictive, is about as safe as caffeine," testified University of Alabama Professor Brad Rodu before a June 3, 2003 congressional subcommittee. Professor Rodu, whose research was funded by United States Smokeless Tobacco Company, contends that smokeless tobacco is safer than smoking.

An August 31, 2004 New York Times article quotes University of Pittsburgh Professor Saul Shiffman as saying, "people are unreasonably afraid of nicotine." "The majority of smokers believe that nicotine causes cancer and is a big player in the harm caused by cigarettes." Shiffman is a GlaxoSmithKline consultant - maker of a nicotine patch, gum and lozenge - and holds a patent for a new as yet unreleased form of fast-acting nicotine gum.

"But it is like caffeine addiction," the Times article quotes University of Vermont Professor John Hughes as saying. "The only harm is that you're having to pay for it." Professor Hughes' studies openly acknowledge that he too is a pharmaceutical industry consultant.

Any assertion that nicotine is as harmless as caffeine must divorce itself from the deadly reality that nicotine is not a bean stimulant but a potent natural insecticide engineered by nature to protect the tobacco plant from being eaten by insects. While it takes 50 to 60 mg of nicotine to kill a 160 pound human, it would take 10,000 mg of caffeine to do so.

Contrary to Shiffman's assertion that nicotine is not a "big player" in the harms caused by cigarettes, a mushrooming body of toxicology science suggests otherwise, especially for the developing fetus. On December 29, 2005, two UK NRT industry consultants, Martin Raw and Robert West, helped author government guidance recommendations allowing UK NRT use for up to 9 months by pregnant smokers.

The report asserts, "The pharmacology of nicotine suggests that it may contribute to some of the damage to the fetus caused by smoking. However, this contribution is likely to be small and there is no doubt at all that NRT use is much safer than smoking."

Not so, asserts Professor Theodore Slotkin with the Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology at Duke University Medical Center. "There is abundant evidence that the major problem for fetal development is exposure to nicotine rather than other components of cigarette smoke." "NRT, especially by transdermal patch, delivers more nicotine to the fetus than smoking does."

A March 2003 study published in Reproductive Toxicology found that the nicotine concentration in the brains of fetal mice were 2.5 times greater than the nicotine concentration found in the mother's bloodstream when nicotine was continuously administrated, as would be the case with the nicotine patch. A pregnant smoker need only imagine what it would be like if her mind were trapped and forced to constantly endure 250% more nicotine than normal.

"The patch is the 'easiest' NRT approach, and it turns out that this is the absolute worst form of nicotine administration for the fetus. Essentially, achieving a continuous steady-state plasma level of nicotine in the mother removes the protective effect of the placenta (delay of entry to fetus, partial catabolism of nicotine) because all water spaces become saturated with nicotine," explains Slotkin.

Nicotine is an extremely destructive teratogen that during critical fetal developmental stages appears to damage the ability of brain cells to communicate, including those associated with serotonin production. A 2001 study, co-authored by Professor Slotkin, expressed concern that nicotine use during pregnancy may subject the unborn to a lifetime of battling chronic depression.

Fetal animal nicotine studies evidence impairment of brain development including net cell losses in the midbrain and cerebral cortex, growth retardation, hyperactivity, central nervous system damage, birth defects, an increased level of anxiety during the early adolescent period, poor adaptation in new environments, robust cognitive deficits in early adulthood, and obesity with type II diabetes.

Even in adults nicotine is a "big player" in the harm caused by cigarettes. One of the chemicals nicotine is transformed into is NNK, a chemical of concern in causing lung cancer. Recent data suggests that nicotine also adds to cancer risks by preventing apoptosis (normal programmed cell death), and by inducing angiogenesis (the creation of new blood vessels) which nourish, feed and accelerate existing tumor growth rates.

Nicotine is not only a "big player" with cancer risks but has been linked to hardening of the arteries and cardiovascular disease, memory impairment, dementia, and chronic depression.

Clearly, at least in adults, the degree of health risks associated with smoked nicotine are greater than those posed by pharmaceutical grade nicotine. But it is also true that the risks posed by pharmaceutical grade nicotine are light years away from "safe."

One of the highest risks posed by nicotine may be evidenced by a June 2005 study which found that 87% of students smoking it at least once daily where already chemically dependent as defined by DSM IV mental health standards. Imagine devoting your entire life to chasing and trying to keep pace with constantly falling blood-serum nicotine levels, declining by half every two hours.

As safe as caffeine? Isn't addiction a serious safety concern when advocating the use of any chemical? Since 2000 Canada's cigarette pack addiction warning label has read, "Warning - Cigarettes are highly addictive. Studies have shown that tobacco can be harder to quit than heroin or cocaine."

GlaxoSmithKline makes nicotine gum. In a November 2003 study its consultants found that 36.6% of current nicotine gum users were chronic long-term users of greater than 6 months. How many never-smoking youth will be enticed to sample pharmaceutical grade nicotine after hearing an educator's assurance that it's as safe as drinking Pepsi or Coke?


Related WhyQuit Articles


Nicotine Addiciton 101
Cigarette Additives, Carcinogens and Chemicals
Smoking While Pregnant or Breastfeeding
Critical Review: Nicotine for the Fetus, the Infant and the Adolescent?
Quit Smoking Aids - Do They Work?






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Written February 16, 2006 and last updated December 27, 2013 by John R. Polito