Smoking and Addiction

In 1988, the U.S. Surgeon General identified nicotine as the addictive ingredient in tobacco, concluded that the addiction to nicotine is similar to the addiction to heroin or cocaine, and highlighted the critical role of addiction in the ongoing battle against tobacco use. A subsequent Surgeon General’s report stated that tobacco dependence is best viewed as a chronic disease with remission and relapse. The World Health Organization also recognizes tobacco use as an addiction stating that it is seen falsely as a personal choice and that most smokers want to quit but have difficulty because of the addiction.

From Health Canada:

  • The main ingredient in cigarettes is nicotine. Nicotine is a central nervous system stimulant and is classified as an addictive drug.
  • Nicotine causes chemical and biological changes in the brain. Although it is less dramatic than heroin or cocaine, the strength of the addiction is just as powerful. It is a “reinforcing” drug, which means that users desire the drug regardless of the damaging effects.
  • The human body builds a tolerance to nicotine and the effect of the drug is reduced over time. As a result, regular smokers can inhale greater amounts of smoke and toxins without showing immediate effects (ie. coughing, nausea).
  • Nicotine is considered addictive because it alters brain functioning and because people use it compulsively. Addiction to nicotine is not immediate – it may take weeks or months to develop.
  • Nicotine enters the brain within 10 seconds after inhaling cigarette smoke. This causes several physiological reactions:
    • Acute increase in heart rate and blood pressure.
    • Constriction of blood vessels causing a temperature drop in the hands and feet.
    • Brain waves are altered and muscles relax
  • Nicotine is extremely poisonous if consumed in large amounts. For this reason, new smokers might experience coughing, dizziness and a dry, irritated throat. Other effects may include nausea, weakness, abdominal cramps, headache, coughing or gagging. These symptoms abate as the user develops a tolerance to nicotine.