How dangerous is nicotine?

Nicotine is probably the most toxic substance regularly used by humans recreationally.

As stated in Question 10, nicotine can act as a stimulant or as a sedative. Both of these effects are dose-dependent. But at higher doses, nicotine can cause hallucinations, or worse. Consider the fact that nicotine is an insecticide. Most insecticides are neurotoxic. This means they target the nervous system of insects in order to kill them. Many chemicals used for chemical warfare in World War I were neurotoxins first developed as insecticides, and these are still used as insecticides today. Many plant and animal poisons are neurotoxins. So the question of whether or not nicotine is dangerous is a matter of dosing. When considering dosing, you should also consider potency—that is, how much of the drug is required to achieve its desired effect, and how much of the drug is required to kill you. This is known in medicine as the therapeutic window; the narrower the therapeutic window, the more dangerous the drug. Nicotine is probably the most toxic substance regularly used by humans recreationally. It is far more toxic than even cocaine, which has been publicized in the media because of a number of famous people who have died from accidental overdose as well as stories of so-called mules, or people who died trying to smuggle the drug into the country. They do this by placing it in balloons and swallowing it and receive a lethal dose should a balloon burst. It takes about 600 mg of cocaine to kill a man. It takes only about a tenth of that amount—60 mg—of nicotine to kill a man. A typical cigarette contains anywhere from 0.5 to 2 mg of nicotine. A line of cocaine contains about 35 to 40 mg of cocaine, depending upon its purity.

What are some of the important chemicals making up tar? How do these chemicals affect the brain and the body?

More than 4,000 chemicals, including 200 poisons such as DDT, ammonia, arsenic, formaldehyde, and carbon monoxide, are found in tobacco. Some of these chemicals are native to the plant while others have been added to improve the odor and dampen the harshness of smoking so that the overall smoking experience is improved. Sugars and honey have been added to cigarettes to sweeten their taste, while ammonia speeds the absorption of nicotine into the bloodstream and ultimately to smokers' brains. Coca is sometimes added as a bronchodilator[1], which means it opens up the airways for faster delivery.

Botanical additives are extracts derived from various plants and herbs used to enhance the flavor, but they also may have pharmacological effects. For example, some pharmacological effects include anesthetic, antibacterial, anti-cancer, anti- inflammatory, anti-fungal, and anti-viral properties. However, these beneficial properties are lost once the herbs are burned and inhaled. Menthol is also added to cigarettes for taste. Menthol has numbing properties, which allows for a deeper inhalation of smoke. Many tobacco additives can contribute to allergic reactions that may also alter the body's cells, predisposing them to cancers and other ailments. The purpose of the additives is to improve the taste and smell of cigarettes in order to keep people smoking. Table 2 lists the major ingredients, what products they are more commonly found in, and their effects on the body. Table 2 ingredients in cigarette smoke and Their Adverse Effects


common Product

adverse effect


Oil paint

Teeth stains

Hydrogen cyanide


Respiratory problems

Carbon monoxide

Car exhaust

Blocks oxygen in blood

Vinyl chloride

Garbage bags

Reynaud-like syndrome


Embalmer's glue

Inflamed, cracked



Rubber cement

Drowsiness, headache, nausea


Paint pigment

Headache, confusion


Ant poison

Prickly sensation in hands and feet

  • [1] A drug or chemical that relaxes the smooth muscle of the bronchi and bronchioles to open the airways, allowing more air to reach the lungs. Commonly prescribed in patients with airway diseases such as asthma and COPD.
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >