Nicotine has wide-ranging health benefits, according to public health experts, but confusion and fear over the properties of the stimulant are suppressing further research and education.
Tobacco use is well known as the leading cause of preventable death globally, but smokers and the public remain largely misinformed about the effects of nicotine. Polls show a large majority of smokers still believe nicotine causes lung and oral cancers, while the harm actually comes from the carcinogenic smoke produced by tobacco when burned. Professor Karl Fagerstrom, a leading expert in addiction treatment and creator of the Fagerstrom Test for Cigarette Dependence, said in the Journal of Smoking Cessation, “there is no evidence for the abuse of pure nicotine.”
The danger comes from the delivery method, which in the case of cigarettes is combustion. This is why smokeless tobacco products and electronic cigarettes reduce the health risks associated with smoking by more than 90 percent. Nicotine on the other hand is more comparable to caffeine, a mildly addictive but legal stimulant found in a wide variety of products.
Much like coffee, scientists say nicotine can act as a performance enhancer that strengthens motor skills and makes the user more alert.
“While nicotine, as coffee and alcohol, contributes risks to pregnancy, it has, as far as is known, few other direct harms,” Fagerstrom said in the Journal of Smoking Cessation. “Unfortunately there is a certain amount of reluctance among researchers to study the potential positive effects of nicotine because the substance is linked to tobacco and mostly manufactured and marketed by the hated tobacco industry. The electronic cigarettes with their very fast uptake in many countries may change the nicotine landscape.”
Early research suggests a range of benefits from nicotine on serious health conditions including positive impacts on Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. There is also emerging evidence that nicotine can aid in fighting hypertension, reducing long-term blood pressure levels.
Importantly, scientists researching the issue have found smoking cessation therapies relying on nicotine delivery do not increase the risks for developing serious cardiovascular diseases or cancer. Researchers say fears over developing heart disease and related conditions are primarily tied to inhaling the smoke of burned tobacco.
The most promising effects of nicotine, however, appear be the short-term health boosts it can give the user. A study published in the journal Psychopharmacology in 2010 reveals nicotine has a strong influence on cognitive function. Researchers found nicotine enhanced episodic and working memory and response time in the user. Many experts say this is an exciting development for smokers due to the emergence of vaping devices, which deliver nicotine without the added tobacco and carcinogens found in cigarettes.
Scientists encouraged by this line of study say nicotine can be a genuine cognitive enhancer. The problem for researchers studying this topic is the fact nicotine is inextricably tied to tobacco in the minds of the public and mainstream scientists.
“The whole problem with nicotine is that it happens to be found in cigarettes,” Maryka Quik, director of the Neurodegenerative Diseases Program at SRI International, told Dan Hurley, author of “Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power.” “People can’t disassociate the two in their mind, nicotine and smoking. It’s not the general public that annoys me, it’s the scientists. When I tell them about the studies, they should say, ‘Wow.’ But they say, ‘Oh well, that might be true, but I don’t see the point.’ It’s not even ignorance. It’s their preconceived ideas and inflexibility.”
Public health experts say misinformation about nicotine may be keeping smokers who want to quit from utilizing cessation products that contain it, including e-cigarettes, out of fear of developing serious health conditions. Smokers need to be properly informed about alternatives to cigarettes by government health bodies and scientists if society is serious about ultimately eradicating the deadly habit.
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