Nicotine, C 10 H 14 N 2 , is a highly toxic, pale yellow alkaloid produced in tobacco plants in response to leaf damage. Nicotine is synthesized in the roots of tobacco plants in response to hormones released by damaged tissue, and it is then carried to the leaves, where it is stored in concentrations of between 2 percent and 8 percent by weight. Nicotine is used commercially as an insecticide (it is one of the few poisons to which insects have not become resistant). Tobacco smoke contains nicotine, believed to be the active (and addictive) ingredient.
Mayan peoples of South America used tobacco for recreational and ceremonial, as well as medicinal, purposes. Mayan sculptures depict high-ranking persons smoking cigars and priests blowing tobacco smoke over human sacrifices. By the time of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the New World, tobacco use had spread throughout both North America and South America. Early accounts by European explorers describe Native Americans carrying glowing sticks from which they inhaled, and many pipes are found among Native American artifacts. Tobacco was often chewed by Native Americans; the juice was dropped into eyes to improve night vision and applied to skin as an agent having antiseptic properties.
The men who accompanied Columbus encountered many users of tobacco, but early European explorers showed little interest in the plant until they acquired an awareness that it might be used to treat diseases. Europeans at first forbade tobacco use, but tobacco gradually gained a reputation among court physicians as a medicine. For many Europeans, tobacco was suddenly a valuable New World commodity.
Nicotine is the active ingredient of tobacco. Nicotine is soluble in water and in nonpolar solvents. It can be absorbed by the body from smoke that has been taken into the lungs, or through the skin. It rapidly crosses the blood-brain barrier, appearing in brain tissue minutes after its absorption into capillaries lining the alveoli of the lungs. The presence of nicotine in the body stimulates nicotinic-cholinergic receptors of the nervous system, resulting in increased attention span, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and increases in the concentrations of some hormones. Habitual users have a feeling of well-being after intake of nicotine, ascribed to the increased concentrations of dopamine in the brain. The increased metabolic rate that is associated with nicotine use may be what is in back of the common belief that it is easier to lose weight when using nicotine.
Nicotinic-cholinergic receptors that are part of the autonomic nervous system may be stimulated at low concentrations of nicotine, but blocked at higher concentrations. The repeated use of nicotine-containing products (which includes chewing tobacco, chewing nicotine-containing gum, or the use of therapeutic patches that release nicotine for skin absorption) promotes the formation of (new) nicotinic-cholinergic receptors. The tolerance and eventual addiction that go along with repeated use may result in increased craving for nicotine.
Many environmentally hazardous substances, such as asbestos and radon, are much more hazardous when they become mixed with cigarette smoke, probably because the particulate matter in smoke in the atmosphere may adsorb these dangerous substances and carry them into the alveoli of lungs. Many cancers may be caused by substances or materials associated with nicotine use, such as tobacco smoke or the tobacco plant itself (as in chewing tobacco). Nicotine itself, although not known to cause cancer directly, causes proliferation of both healthy and neoplastic cells, and may further the development of cancer by stimulating angiogenesis (the growth of new blood vessels) and thus providing cancerous tissues with increased blood supplies. The effect of nicotine on cell growth is especially strong in tissue environments having low concentrations of carbon dioxide, for example, in damaged lungs; thus, the effect would be greater in persons whose breathing was already impaired. Nicotine's stimulation of cell growth may account for the observation that atherosclerotic plaques (which are intracellular accumulations of lipids ) grow more rapidly in the presence of this alkaloid substance. This effect may actually become the basis of medical treatments intended to improve blood flow to tissues damaged by atherosclerosis.
Single exposure to nicotine in quantities as small as 50 mg (0.0018 oz) may result in vomiting and seizures; the average cigarette yields about 3 mg(0.00011 oz). As nicotine can be absorbed through skin, accidental exposures in persons working with nicotine-containing pesticide preparations may be fatal. Extracts of chewing tobacco are effective insecticides; commercial insecticide products contain much higher amounts of nicotine than products intended for human consumption.
Brautbar, N. (1995). "Direct Effects of Nicotine on the Brain: Evidence for Chemical Addiction." Archives of Environmental Health (July 1):263.
Nicotine and Tobacco Research. Various issues.
"A Brief History of Tobacco." Available from http://www.cnn.com/US/9705/tobacco/history/index/html .