Since he ditched Marlboro Lights five years ago, Daniel’s fix is fruit-flavored nicotine gum that comes in neat, pop-out strips. He gets through 12 to 15 pieces a day and says he has “packets of the stuff” stashed all over. But he doesn’t see himself as a nicotine addict.
Like many people, Daniel believes nicotine gum is far less harmful for him than smoking. Doctors worldwide agree. By giving up cigarettes, they say, Daniel has removed at least 90 percent of the health risks of his habit.
Even so, the possibility that people can be addicted to nicotine, but not die from it, is at the heart of a growing debate in the scientific community. Scientists don’t doubt nicotine is addictive, but some wonder if a daily dose could be as benign as the caffeine many of us get from a morning coffee.
It’s a debate that has been aggravated by the rising popularity of electronic cigarettes – tobacco-free gadgets people use to inhale nicotine-laced vapor, which have helped some people quit smoking. The idea of nicotine as relatively benign goes against the negative image of the drug that built up over the decades when smoking rose to become an undisputed health threat.
Psychologists and tobacco-addiction specialists, including some in world-leading laboratories in Britain, think it’s now time to distinguish clearly between nicotine and smoking. The evidence shows smoking is the killer, not nicotine, they say.
“We need to de-demonize nicotine,” said Ann McNeill, a professor of tobacco addiction and the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London, who has spent her career researching ways to help people quit smoking.
She wants people to understand the risks are nuanced – that potential harms lie on a curve with smoking at one end, and nicotine at the other. People who don’t see that may hesitate to seek help stopping smoking, or try to restrain their intake of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). That can make it harder to quit.
Some studies show nicotine, like caffeine, can even have positive effects. It’s a stimulant, which raises the heart rate and increases the speed of sensory information processing, easing tension and sharpening the mind.
All this raises other questions: Could nicotine prime the brains of young people to seek harder stuff? Or, in an aging society, could its stimulant properties benefit people whose brains are slowing, warding off cognitive decline into Alzheimer’s and delaying the progression of Parkinson’s disease?
So far the answers aren’t clear. And the divide is as political and emotional as it is scientific.