Is nicotine just an unassuming bypasser with a villain complex?

‘Highly addictive substance…’

‘A naturally occurring toxic chemical…’

‘A stimulant drug…’

This and much more have been said about nicotine, writes Asanda Gcoyi. But what is it really? And why is it such a hot topic for everyone, from politicians to clean-living gurus? If nicotine is a naturally occurring substance, is classifying it as “highly addictive” simply a marketing ploy?

To understand the buzz – and why nicotine is seen as the enemy for many in the public health sector – it’s important to understand how we got here. Just like every villain in your favourite comic book, this one has its original story, too.

Back to the beginning…

Nicotine is an alkaloid, a naturally occurring organic compound, produced by the nightshade family of tobacco plants. An alkaloid is a group of nitrogenous (that is, containing nitrogen in a chemical combination) organic compounds and due to its presence in certain plants and products, it has a physiological effect on the human body.

According to Britannica, the tobacco plant and the nicotine compound is named after a French ambassador to Portugal, Jean Nicot, who sent tobacco seeds to Paris in the mid-1500s. It would be years later – 1614 – before tobacco shops began opening across Britain. Despite this, researchers point to Native Americans cultivating the tobacco plant as early as 6000 BC, and smoking it and using it for medicinal purposes around 1 BC.

Fast forward to the 1800s, or 1828 to be exact, when the purified form of the nicotine compound is isolated. A few years later, in 1843, the molecular form is established, with the nicotine becoming one of very few liquid alkaloids, and in 1880, the first cigarette-rolling machine is invented. It’s only in the next century that tobacco, nicotine and cigarettes become ubiquitous – and synonymous with one another. In the 21st century, nicotine can be found in cigarettes, snuff, snus, e-cigarettes, chewing and pipe tobacco, pesticides, electronic vapour products (EVPs), and medical nicotine replacement therapies (NRTs, such as gum, patches, lozenges and sprays).

But is it harmful to me?

Most nicotine is extracted from the tobacco leaf plant and, as with any other substance, it is not without risk. However, numerous studies have shown that it is the toxicants in the smoke produced when tobacco is burnt (what is known as combustion) alongside other chemicals like tar that are the main causes of most health-related risks, such as cancer, emphysema (a lung condition that causes shortness of breath) and cardiovascular diseases.

Even so, nicotine continues to be painted as a villain, doomed to suffer from its association with smoking tobacco products. Yet, countless studies, including in the field of nootropics (that is, the study of smart drugs or cognitive enhancers) have proven that nicotine has health benefits.

The unknown world of nicotine

In 2014, writer Dan Hurley, writing for science publication Discover, called nicotine the “most unlikely wonder drug ever to be reviled”. How so? Well, in the previous six years, dozens of clinical trial studies on humans and animals were published that supported nicotine’s use as an effective drug for the relief and/or prevention of neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia, as well as assisting with weight loss.

A study undertaken by the University of Surrey in the UK also showed how nicotine enhanced short-term memory – a benefit that is one of the most widely recognised – while many athletes believe nicotine improves their performance. A 2017 meta-analysis of studies found that smokeless tobacco is used by many American football and baseball players, while the use of snus is widespread among Swedish, Finnish and Norwegian athletes, with 25% of more than 400 Finnish athletes funded by their National Olympic Committee using snus in 2002.

Enter the vape

In 2003, the world was introduced to the first e-cigarette. After losing his father to lung cancer caused by years of smoking tobacco in cigarette form, Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik developed the first e-cigarette that administered nicotine without any of the harmful chemicals and toxicants generally found in cigarettes. The product found immediate success in China and, two years later, was introduced in the UK before being sold in the United States from 2017. Since then, the e-cigarette has evolved into other devices, collectively known as electronic vapour products (EVPs) or vapes.

Vaping or using an e-cigarette cuts out the combustion and rather produces a nicotine aerosol (or vapour) that is less harmful. This has been proven by research undertaken over the past few years in specifically Sweden and the United Kingdom, which shows that substituting cigarettes with vapour products leads to lower rates of smoking. Through public policies led by government bodies such as Public Health England (PHE), the UK has experienced a drop of 25% in smoking since 2012. Furthermore, PHE maintains that vaping is 95% less harmful than using tobacco products, specifically cigarettes.

There is ongoing debate about nicotine’s uses and you may still be unsure whether or not it is harmful to your health. However, studies from hundreds of researchers and the improved health of vapers across the world prove otherwise.