Drug Facts: Nicotine

First published 2003. To view the latest Heads Up content, click here.

Cigarettes and other tobacco products are addictive and deadly. Here are the facts.


Cigarette smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals, including toxins like ammonia. But the chief culprit in cigarettes is nicotine, a powerfully addictive drug.

With every puff of a cigarette, nicotine alters how your brain functions. Like cocaine and heroin, nicotine stimulates the release of a chemical called dopamine, located in parts of the brain that are involved in addictive behaviors. Although a user does not get a high from cigarettes that one might get from drugs like cocaine and heroin, make no mistake: Nicotine affects your brain.

Nicotine “primes” the brain for addiction. You can begin to crave cigarettes more than anything else. “Smoking becomes your sole focus,” says Dr. Cindy Miner, the chief of NIDA’s science policy branch. “Nothing else is as pleasurable as it used to be.” Indeed, your brain becomes so used to the presence of nicotine that, when you try to quit, it rebels and craves more.

But addiction may be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to risks from smoking. When you inhale, cigarette smoke and the chemicals it carries are absorbed by the lungs and quickly move into the bloodstream, where they circulate through your heart to your brain and the rest of your body. Your lungs fill with chemical deposits.

“You’re taking tar into your lungs and there’s no way to clear out all that debris,” says Miner. “Suddenly you find that you are gasping for breath on the soccer field.”

Research suggests that nicotine is even more harmful to the developing hearts, lungs, and brains of teens. “The younger you start, the more likely you will get hooked,” Miner says. “The younger you get hooked, the more cigarettes you will smoke. And the more cigarettes you smoke…. Well, we know where that leads.” 

Dip, Cigars, Bidis
As if cigarettes aren’t bad enough, there are other hazardous tobacco products. Because of how they look or smell or how they’re used, some people might think they’re not as addictive or harmful as cigarettes. But here’s the truth:

  • Chewing tobacco (spit, snuff, dip, smokeless): The amount of nicotine in one pinch of dip can be five times as high as in a cigarette. Plus, dip comes with its own health risks. From the toxins in the juice created, chewers can develop painful lesions on their tongue, as well as cancer of the esophagus, pharynx, larynx, and stomach. Perhaps the worst of all are cancers of the mouth and tongue, which often require surgery to remove parts of a user’s face. These cancers from chewing tobacco often occur earlier, rather than later, in a user’s life.
  • Cigars: Cigars are puffed and not inhaled, but the smoke still gets into the lungs and does just as much damage as cigarettes. Cigar smokers risk the same oral cancer and other irritation problems as people who chew tobacco. Also, a cigar delivers nicotine. In fact, it delivers about four times as much nicotine as a cigarette.
  • Bidis: These hand-rolled cigarettes from India (pronounced “beedees”) are often packaged in cinnamon, orange, and chocolate flavors to appeal to kids. But don’t let the taste fool you. Bidis are generally unfiltered and can have 28 percent higher nicotine concentration levels than cigarettes.


Browse Other Content