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Neuroscience For Kids

Nicotine and the Brain

A complete list of the reasons to avoid smoking and chewing tobacco is not necessary here, but for starters, how about lung cancer, lip cancer, throat cancer, respiratory problems, heart disease and bad breath?

Tobacco contains nicotine. Nicotine is a drug. Therefore, when people smoke or chew tobacco, they are using a drug.

Brief History of Tobacco

ship Christopher Columbus and his crewman on their voyage to the "New World" were the first Europeans to see tobacco smoking. The tobacco plant is called Nicotiana tabacum and is named after an early importer named Jean Nicot. A water/nicotine mixture has been used as an insecticide since 1746. In 1828, nicotine was isolated from the leaves of the tobacco plant.

Effects of Nicotine on the Nervous System

lung In tobacco smoke, nicotine "rides" on small particles of tar. When the smoke with this nicotine/tar mixture gets to the lungs, the nicotine is absorbed quickly - nicotine reaches the brain about eight seconds after the smoke is inhaled. American cigarettes contain about 9 mg of nicotine, but because much of the nicotine is burned off, a smoker gets about 1 mg of nicotine in every cigarette. Nicotine reaches the central nervous system in about 3-5 minutes when tobacco is chewed.

Smoking can be stimulating or relaxing - it depends on a person's mood and dosage of nicotine. Nicotine acts on the central and peripheral nervous system. The rapid effects of nicotine include: pain

Percentage of Cigarette Smokers in the United States (over the age of 18 years)

Image: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, October 10, 2003, Vol. 52 No. 40

smokeLong term exposure to tobacco and nicotine increases the chances of cancer and results in addiction and dependence. Exactly how nicotine produces addiction and dependence is not clear, but there are some theories. In the brain, limbic pathways that use the neurotransmitter dopamine are affected by nicotine and may be responsible for some of the addictive properties. It is clear though, that nicotine is one of the most addicting substances known...just ask anyone who has tried to quit smoking. Common withdrawal symptoms in people who are trying to "kick the habit" of tobacco include: angry

"To cease smoking is the easiest thing I ever did. I ought to know, because I've done it a thousand times." - quote from Mark Twain

Did you know?
  • According to the World Health Organization, there are 1.1 billion smokers worldwide and 6000 billion cigarettes are smoked every year.
  • According to the US Centers for Disease Control, there are about 46.2 million adult cigarette smokers in the US. Moreover, tobacco use in the US results in more than 440,000 deaths each year (about 1 in 5 deaths.) The economic costs (medical costs and lost productivity) of tobacco use are more than $150 billion.
  • The New Straits Times (August 11, 1997) reported on a "smoking contest" between two young men (ages 19 and 21 year old). These two men wanted to see who could smoke the most cigarettes at a single sitting. The result was tragic: the 19 year old died after smoking 100 cigarettes and the 21 year old was seriously poisoned after smoking 80 cigarettes. It goes without saying, "Don't try this at home!"
  • "Bidi" cigarettes are NOT safe alternatives to regular cigarettes. A bidi cigarette has THREE times more nicotine and carbon monoxide and FIVE times more tar than a regular American cigarette. (Statistic from Yen et al., Archives of Pediatric and Adoles. Medicine, 154:1187-1189, 2000.)
  • The cost of a pack of cigarettes in New York is about $7.00. Therefore, a person who smokes one pack of cigarettes each day will spend $2,555.00 each year on tobacco. (Reference: Associated Press story, "With packs hitting $7, smokers try to kick habit" reprinted in the Seattle Times, July 13, 2002.)
  • More than 100 chemicals are added to tobacco to make cigarettes. These chemicals include benzaldehyde, butyric acid, decanoic acid, ethyl acetate, hexanoic acid, 3-methylbutyraldehyde, methylcyclopentenolone, and tolualdehydes. (Reference: Philip Morris USA.)

For more information about nicotine, see:

Information about other drugs:

Alcohol Amphetamines Caffeine Cocaine
Heroin Inhalants LSD Marijuana
Nicotine Ecstasy Rohypnol 1,4-Butanediol
GHB Barbiturates PCP Hallucinogenic Mushrooms

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