Is tobacco a drug?

According to the FDA, nicotine is a drug because it stimulates the brain and enhances feelings of pleasure, thereby reinforcing its continued use by the individual.

There is no single, precise definition for a drug, but generally speaking, a drug is defined as a compound that, when ingested, alters bodily function in some manner. Surprisingly, it was not until 1996 that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared nicotine a drug and thus attempted unsuccessfully to bring it under its jurisdiction (see question 19 for more information). This unusual fact has to do with the differences that exist between various definitions of drug. There are definitions that are chemical, biological, medical, cultural, and legal. With respect to the legal definition, defining nicotine as a drug changes the laws that regulate its distribution and use. This is why, even though coffee and cocoa are technically drugs, they are not drugs under the legal definition. The role of the FDA is to ensure the "purity, safety, and effectiveness of drugs and the 'devices' used to deliver drugs." Nicotine is defined as a drug and the cigarette is defined as a delivery device. According to the FDA, nicotine is a drug because it stimulates the brain and enhances feelings of pleasure, thereby reinforcing its continued use by the individual. In other words, nicotine alters the functions of both the body and the brain, which meets the FDA definition of a drug. Another effect is the damage cigarettes cause to the body, notably to the lungs and cardiovascular system, often causing cancer and death. This adds to the definition and furthers the need for control by the FDA. Consequently, the FDA attempted to place restrictions on tobacco advertising and sales to minors. However, this was overturned by the Supreme Court until 2008, when Congress finally passed a law granting the FDA authority.

Joseph's comment:

From my point of view, I feel that tobacco is a drug with one of the strongest levels of addiction. It keeps you in such place of denial because when I was smoking, I could not see that I was ruled by the tobacco. After quitting, I began to see that tobacco controlled every aspect of my life. Even after breaking the physical addiction, there was still more work to do on the mental addiction.

What are tar and nicotine?


Tar is the brown, sticky substance left at the end of a cigarette filter after it is smoked. It includes additional ingredients to give cigarettes a better flavor. The by-products of smoking these other ingredients are inhaling toxic chemicals. Tar is made up of more than 4000 chemicals; some of the more toxic chemicals include cyanide, benzene, ammonia, and methanol (wood alcohol). Tar causes the cilia in the lungs to stop functioning. Cilia are small protrusions (like the tentacles on sea urchins) that trap and remove foreign substances from the lungs. Tar is also carcinogenic because it alters the cell's genetic material. When the cells reproduce, new abnormal cells are created that lead to cancer.

Tar leaves a brownish-yellow film on contact. This is responsible for the brown residue that stains a smoker's teeth and fingers. It leaves stains in the environment where cigarettes are smoked (fabric, walls and ceilings, etc.). Filters were added to cigarettes in the 50s when it first became known that tars were potentially dangerous to one's health as a way of trapping and reducing their amount. Later, low-tar cigarettes were also produced with a similar thought. Cigarettes were classified as high-tar, medium-tar, and low-tar by the amount of tar they contained. Low-tar cigarettes are marketed as "lights."

Tar, nicotine, and carbon monoxide ceiling values (more commonly defined as TNCO ceilings[1]) are international standards that many governments use to set limits on how tobacco companies may manufacture and market cigarettes in their countries. It is important to understand that different countries set different limits. These standards are based on smoking machines and not on human consumption. Because humans tend to modify the way they inhale cigarettes in order to make up for any lost flavor or nicotine amount, studies by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) have shown that low-tar or light cigarettes contain no health advantages over high-tar, or full-flavor cigarettes. We cover some of the more important chemicals in greater detail in Questions 12 and 13.

High-tar cigarettes contain at least 22 milligrams (mg) of tar. Medium-tar cigarettes have from 15 mg to 21 mg, and low-tar cigarettes contain 7 mg or less of tar.


Nicotine, which is named from the plant after its introduction to Europe by Jean Nicot, was first isolated in 1823, and synthesized in 1893. It is a chemical compound in a family of nitrogen-containing plant-based compounds collectively known as alkaloids[2]. Alkaloids include many psychoactive compounds, such as cocaine, caffeine, and opium. Nicotine is found in a family of plants known as Solanaceae. The family is also informally known as the potato family, which includes a wide variety of common plants such as potato, tomato, eggplant, green peppers, chili peppers, paprika as well as belladonna (the deadly poisonous nightshade). Nicotine is predominantly found in tobacco, but in lesser quantities in some of the other plant family members, too. Nicotine can be found in non-solanaceous plants, such as in the leaves of the coca plant, which is more commonly known as the basis for the drug cocaine.

Nicotine is made in the roots and accumulates in the leaves. Its primary purpose is to repel bugs (insecticide) in order to protect itself. It was used for this purpose for many centuries

Molecular Structure of Nicotine

Figure 1 Molecular Structure of Nicotine

by humans as well, and nicotine derivatives continue to be widely used as insecticides to this day. It is an organic compound, which is a compound that consists predominantly of carbon and hydrogen. Figure 1 shows the chemical structure (N stands for nitrogen).

  • [1] The total upper value of the aerosol residue, nicotine, and carbon monoxide contents as measured by a cigarette smoking machine calibrated to ISO standards. This measure is used by countries worldwide to regulate manufactured tobacco products.
  • [2] Naturally occurring chemical compounds containing basic nitrogen atoms that are produced by a large variety of organisms, including bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals.
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