Nicotine: The Helpful Drug With the Bad Reputation

Perhaps no commonly used drug is more misunderstood than nicotine. Because of its presence in tobacco, it’s effects are frequently confused with the effects and dangers of smoking. But the truth is that nicotine by itself, assuming a reasonable dose, is a largely benign — and even beneficial — substance. New nicotine studies are coming up with exciting applications for the oft-maligned drug.

If it weren’t typically being delivered in the unhealthiest way possible — in smoke produced by burning dead plant matter — it’s questionable whether anyone would pay much attention to such a lightweight stimulant. But because the most popular way of consuming it is in cigarettes, it will be forever tied to the damage they cause.

Confession time. Before I got involved with vaping, I honestly didn’t realize that nicotine was a mostly harmless drug. Like many (maybe even most) people, I thought nicotine bore some of the blame for the millions of premature deaths caused annually by cigarettes.

Nicotine has little to do with the cancers and respiratory damage seen in smokers, and it’s unlikely that nicotine by itself contributes to heart disease, though one known side effect is a temporary constriction of the blood vessels. The fact is, it’s the thousands of chemicals produced by lighting tobacco that are the guilty parties here, not the modest drug with the bad reputation.

Where does nicotine come from?

Nicotine is an alkaloid found in many plants from the nightshade family, which includes tobacco, eggplant, tomatoes, potatoes, and many others. However, only in tobacco is nicotine concentrated enough that it has a recognizable effect to the user. Ingesting enough tomatoes or aubergines to register on a nicotine test is probably impossible.

Because there’s more nicotine in tobacco than in any other plant, tobacco is the only source (so far anyway) for commercially extracted nicotine. When we speak of vaping nicotine, we’re almost exclusively talking about a product produced from Nicotiana rustica, a cousin of the commonly smoked species Nicotiana tabacumRustica produces a particularly rich haul of nic, and that’s what’s grown in (especially) China and India, and extracted for pharmaceutical products and e-liquid manufacture.

The effects of nicotine depend greatly on the method of delivery.

Nicotiana tabacum apparently tastes better to smoke and chew, but produces far less nicotine for extraction. Most of the varieties of American tobacco used for cigarette and pipe tobacco are breeds of the tabacum species. There are some other naturally occurring tobacco species, but they are rarely cultivated for commercial use.

There is now synthetic nicotine available, which some people believe could allow manufacturers to avoid the FDA’s deeming regulations, which are based on the Tobacco Control Act definition of a tobacco product as being “made or derived from tobacco.” That remains unclear though. We may not know how the FDA treats synthetic nicotine until they take action against the producers or sellers, and a court case ensues. As it stands, the FDA considers even vapes without nicotine to be tobacco products, because the same devices can be used to vape nicotine.



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