Smoking was once highly accepted and completely commonplace, but, over the past several decades, a plethora of studies have been conducted to learn more about the effect of cigarettes, which contain nicotine, on smokers and people who live with smokers. In the past, smoking was not considered to be harmful to people; in fact it was the norm for people to smoke, but many of these studies have returned results that prove that smoking is not only harmful but could be deadly. Although cigarettes actually contain hundreds of chemicals, nicotine is the key ingredient, it is highly addictive and scientists have been conducting research studies to understand the link between nicotine and cancer. Nicotine can and has been used in a multitude of ways, in fact it was once used as an insecticide in the United States. In its naturally occurring form, nicotine can be fatal, even in relatively small amounts to people that are exposed to it, and workers who are responsible for extracting and processing the chemical are at risk for health complications as a result of their exposure. But the question still remains: is nicotine a carcinogen?
What Is Nicotine? *
According to MedicineNet .com, Nicotine is an alkaloid (a nitrogen-containing chemical) which is naturally produced by the tobacco plant. Nicotine can also be synthetically created.
The Centers for Disease Control define nicotine as:
Nicotine is a naturally occurring toxic chemical found in tobacco plants. Cigarettes, cigars, other tobacco products, and tobacco smoke contain nicotine. Nicotine affects the nervous system and the heart.
How Does Nicotine Affect Users? *
Most people who begin using nicotine will become addicted because of its chemical properties and breaking that addiction is a very difficult task. Unfortunately, addiction isn’t the only concern; nicotine side effects are very powerful and impact not only a person physically, but also psychologically. Physically, nicotine use can cause increased heart rates and the amount of oxygen that the heart muscle is able to pump through itself; psychologically, nicotine use often results in increased alertness and a sense of relaxation or euphoria.
The Endowment for Human Development’s website describes what happens when nicotine is introduced into a smoker’s body. When a smoker takes a drag from their cigarette, the nicotine is rapidly absorbed by their blood and within eight seconds of inhaling, the nicotine begins effecting the way the brain works. Nicotine actually resembles a naturally occurring chemical in the brain, called acetylcholine. This chemical is a neurotransmitter, which means that it carries messages back and forth between cells in the brain. When a smoker brings nicotine into their body, it essentially takes over the receptors that acetylcholine belong causing rapid changes throughout the brain and body, such as a higher heart rate and faster breathing.
Attempting to quit using nicotine can cause unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, therefore, nicotine replacement therapies have become popular in helping smokers quit. However, nicotine is the primary component present in smoking cessation methods, such as gums, patches, and e-cigarettes. The widespread use of the substance has led health care professionals and scientists to delve deeper into learning more about what happens to the human body as a result of nicotine use.
Is Nicotine a Carcinogen? *
Even though nicotine is harmful to heart health and extremely addictive, one of the most frightening and pressing questions posed has become, ‘is nicotine a carcinogen or is nicotine carcinogenic?’ Scientists have conducted a battery of tests and studies on nicotine to examine the possible link between nicotine and cancer. These studies have revealed mixed results on if nicotine is actually carcinogenic.
A 2014 research report from the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute seemed to result in proof that nicotine itself could be a trigger to put someone at higher risk for cancer. The observations revealed that nicotine actually changes the structure of a person’s genes. Researchers exposed a group of cells to nicotine and then compared them with cells that were not exposed to nicotine. Their findings indicated that the cells that had been exposed to nicotine had mutated into a known precancerous compound.
Other studies, including a 2006 report from The University of South Florida claim that nicotine on its own is not a carcinogen, however, nicotine did speed up the growth of cancerous cells. Researchers claim that this study explains why chemotherapy treatments are sometimes less effective on cancer patients who are smokers than it is on non-smokers. Piyali Dasgupta, PhD, one of the doctors who performed the study stated, “These events can be expected to contribute to the growth and progression of tumors exposed to nicotine through tobacco smoke or cigarette substitutes”.
The common thread between these studies and a multitude of others is that in some regard, nicotine’s presence does in fact play a major role in cancer either developing or worsening.
What about Nicotine as a Carcinogen in E-Cigarettes? *
E-cigarettes also known as vapes have become an extremely popular alternative to traditional cigarettes, proponents claim that vapes are a healthier way of getting a nicotine fix. Instead of inhaling smoke, users inhale vaporized nicotine, which greatly reduces the potential for being carcinogenic. However, Time.com reveals that a recent study has found that some e-cigs become so hot when used that they do in fact produce carcinogenic smoke. The study looked at higher-voltage e-cigarettes—referred to as “tank-style”—which are heated with larger batteries compared to smaller disposable brands. The new study, which will be published in the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research, found that tank e-cigarettes can produce the carcinogen formaldehyde when the liquid nicotine is heated at high temperatures, which users inhale. “This finding suggests that in certain conditions, [e-cigarettes] might expose their users to the same or even higher levels of carcinogenic formaldehyde as tobacco smoke,” the Roswell study says.
Since e-cigarettes are a relatively new product, there hasn’t been a great deal of research done weighing their benefits and potential risks, but the Nicotine and Tobacco Research study does not appear to be leaning in a favorable direction for the devices. According to Time.com, the Food and Drug Administration has expanded the tobacco products it can regulate, including e-cigarettes. One of the first changes the FDA announced when proclaiming jurisdictional authority was a ban on selling e-cigarettes to anyone under the age of 18.
The New York Times featured a piece on two studies that looked at “tank style” e-cigarettes along with commentary from the doctors who led the projects. There are two main factors that complicate the research being done at universities and independent corporations and laboratories:
- Most e-cigarette manufacturers operate outside of the United States and therefore do not have to follow uniform rules and regulations for the components, meaning that each different manufacturer is free to use whichever ingredients they want
- The rate at which new products and devices are being introduced into the consumer market
Dr. Maciej L. Goniewicz, an assistant professor of oncology at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, headed up the Roswell study and said that the technology is moving so quickly that many of the products tested are outdated — and some are no longer even on the market.**
Dr. Alan Shihadeh led the Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for the Study of Tobacco Products study, “Technology is way ahead of the science. We’re creating this stuff, and we don’t understand the implications.” Dr. Shihadeh, is also an associate professor of mechanical engineering at American University in Beirut.
How to Minimize the Risk of Nicotine as a Carcinogen *
As scientists continue to conduct research and studies, they also play a waiting game to see the long-term health complications on nicotine users. Of course, because of the high probability of addiction with nicotine use, the only surefire way to avoid potential carcinogens is to avoid its use altogether. However, there are ways to beat nicotine addiction.
- Use FDA approved smoking cessation products as they are the most regulated and monitored forms of nicotine
- Use only the smaller versions of e-cigarettes, not the “tank style” ones that have a tendency to become very hot
- Explore holistic options for smoking cessation
- Speak to a psychiatrist or other mental health professional for counseling on how to kick a nicotine addiction