Nicotine: The Drug

AuthorJames G. Wigmore
 1
Nicotine: The Drug
“Smoking is highly addictive. Nicotine is the addictive drug in tobacco.
Cigarette companies intentionally designed cigarettes with enough nico-
tine to create and sustain addiction.
—Court-ordered Corrective Statements,
US v Philip Morris USA Inc, RICO decision ()
“Indeed, a chemist at Philip Morris would have been among a select few in
the country who could appreciate just how nasty nicotine really is. Many
at the research center learned the hard way that merely leaving a bottle
of the clear liquid open in a warm room brings on a wave of coughing and
gagging, followed in short order by dizziness and nausea.
—Dan Zegart, Civil Warriors the Legal Siege on the Tobacco Industry ()
“If it’s got nitrogen, it is a drug.
—Wan-Ching Sun, Forensic Toxicologist, Centre of Forensic Science ()
Nicotine is a much more toxic and addictive drug than either alcohol or
tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and is the only one of the three drugs that
originated from the New World. Nicotine was named after an early advo-
cate of the use of this drug and tobacco, Jean Nicot, the French ambassa-
dor to Portugal who obtained some of the f‌irst tobacco seeds. The name
is derived from “Nicot” and “ine,” as the drug contained nitrogen (amines)
and was an alkaloid. The species of tobacco plant was also named after
him (“nicotiana”).
| Wigmore on Nicotine and Its Drug Delivery Systems
The f‌irst section on the History and Cultivation of Tobacco does not
present a sugar-coated, nostalgic view of tobacco, such as Sir Walter
Raleigh’s servant rushing into his room with a bucket of water to put out
the pipe he was smoking, as the servant thought he was on f‌ire. Instead,
it concentrates on the major adverse health ef‌fects tobacco has had on
humans and on the environment, especially in the cultivation and pro-
cessing of tobacco.
The other sections in this chapter describe the addictive and poison-
ing ef‌fects of nicotine. Other minor and insignif‌icant sources of nicotine
such as tomatoes or potatoes, which are in the same plant family, have
been used as a smoke screen by the tobacco industry to cast doubt that
the nicotine found in non-smokers was caused by secondhand smoke but
by the ingestion of these vegetables.
“Both tobacco cultivation and curing, then are associated with farming
methods that destroy the environment in developing countries, while it
can provide prof‌its for farmers and local communities, these societies are
impoverished by the loss of resources.
—De Granda-Orive et al, “World Health Organization Positioning.
The Impact of Tobacco in the Environment: Cultivation, Curing,
Manufacturing, Transport, and Third and Fourth-Hand Smoking” ()
“If tobacco were to be introduced today, it would not be approved for
human consumption anywhere in the world.
—Chandra and Govindraju, “Prevalence of Oral Mucosal Lesions
Among Tobacco Users” ()
Tobacco plants are a member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae),
which also includes tomatoes and potatoes. The main tobacco plants
(nicotiana tabacum and nicotiana rustica) have been cultivated in
the Andes of South American since about , BCE and spread to
North America, where the Indigenous people of‌fered Columbus gifts of
tobacco (, ). At f‌irst Columbus threw the tobacco overboard
but members of his crew started smoking and its use grew in popular-
ity. At that time smoking was conducted mainly by using various types
of pipes. The Maya uniquely did not used pipes but wrapped the dried
Nicotine: The Drug |
tobacco in a corn husk or other plant material to form a type of crude
Nicotiana rustica was the main tobacco grown in North America
before colonization. It produced a harsh smoke as it was more basic (i.e.,
bitter) than Nicotiana tabacum, and so was not inhaled completely into
the lungs. Instead, the smoke was kept in the mouth, which allowed the
nicotine to be absorbed through the mucous membranes of the oral cav-
ity. This prevented the tobacco from becoming a major cause of lung
cancer and addiction among the Indigenous peoples in North America
until the production of modern cigarettes.
Many modern Indigenous communities’ sacred ceremonies use com-
mercial tobacco, and there is a call to begin using the other traditional
types of tobacco plants originally cultivated here instead (). Dif-
ferent types of native tobacco plants were also grown by the Indigenous
communities in other countries such as Australia ().
Tobacco is considered to be a valuable cash crop. But the farmers
where this crop is grown are typically poorer and have more health prob-
lems than farmers of nontobacco crops (, ). Any prof‌it seems
to benef‌it the tobacco industry and not the developing countries where
it is grown (). Globally, approximately . million hectares of land
are under cultivation for tobacco () and approximately . trillion
(,,,,!) cigarettes are produced annually ().
Nicotiana tabacum concentrates toxic heavy metals, such as cadmium,
arsenic, and lead, and radioactive elements from soil, pesticides, and fer-
tilizers into its leaves, which also would pose an additional health risk to
tobacco users (, , , ). The tobacco plant depletes the
soil, requiring large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides, which causes
substantial environmental degradation (, ).
About % of the alkaloids produced by the tobacco plant is nicotine,
which is produced by the roots but accumulates in the leaves. The nico-
tine content of the tobacco leaves can therefore be reduced by grafting
the plant onto eggplant roots, but this would reduce the addictiveness
of cigarettes (). Nicotine is a powerful stimulant and parasympa-
thetic alkaloid which is readily absorbed through the lungs and the skin
(–). This absorption of nicotine causes Green Tobacco Sickness
Ian Gately, La Diva Nicotina—the Story of How Tobacco Seduced the World (UK:
Simon and Schuster, ).

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