Is Nicotine addictive?

Well, of course, right?

From the National Institue on Drug Abuse:

Is Nicotine Addictive? Yes. Most smokers use tobacco regularly because they are addicted to nicotine. Addiction is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and abuse, even in the face of negative health consequences.

The National Cancer Institute clarifies that “nicotine is the main addictive substance in cigarettes and other forms of tobacco” and emphasizes that withdrawal symptoms from smoking cessation clearly demonstrate nicotine’s addictive power.

And of course, claims that nicotine is not addictive are historically associated with cigarette company executives, and are thus disreputable.

But here’s the problem. It is not clear that people get addicted to nicotine per se (and lab animals don’t get addicted to nicotine barring significant chemical interventions). According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, nicotine, gum, lozenges, and patches (Nicotine Replacement Therapy, or NRT) “do not appear to have significant potential for abuse or dependence,” so the FDA has lifted restrictions on access to NRT.

The FDA says nicotine in pure form – along with inactive ingredients that go into the gum and lozenges – doesn’t appear to cause dependence (otherwise known as “addiction”), overuse or abuse, or withdrawal symptoms.

Even coffee has withdrawal symptoms. But not NRT.

Even the National Institute on Drug Abuse posting cited above seems to acknowledge this with a sleight of hand. Read carefully:

Nicotine withdrawal symptoms include irritability, craving, depression, anxiety, cognitive and attention deficits, sleep disturbances, and increased appetite. These symptoms may begin within a few hours after the last cigarette, quickly driving people back to tobacco use.

Cigarettes are addictive, and cigarette withdrawal produces those terrible symptoms.

But cigarette smoke is a cocktail of many chemicals hitting the body at once. Nicotine is one of those chemicals, but nicotine on its own doesn’t cause dependence, abuse, or withdrawal.

So, by any meaningful definition, nicotine – by itself – is not addictive.

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