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  • Writer's pictureNick Allen

The risks and benefits of nicotine

Even mentioning “nicotine” and “benefits” in the same sentence will surely draw controversy, but it is important to acknowledge that there are published benefits associated with nicotine use under very specific circumstances. Whether these benefits outweigh the risks depends on the situation and the route of administration. For example, whereas the occasional use of nicotine gum may be rather benign, smoking tobacco is one of the worst things you can do for your health (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Tobacco use is a risk factor for several of the worldwide leading causes of death. Grouped together, deaths attributable to tobacco use total over 5 million annually (WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic, 2008).

Though it is found in tobacco and thus assumed to be harmful, nicotine itself is not carcinogenic. The National Cancer Institute cites nearly 70 chemicals found in cigarettes that are known to be cancer-causing, but nicotine does not make this list. There are concerns regarding heart disease, insulin resistance, and more, but the data thus far is largely inconclusive. One thing is certain — the risks of nicotine alone pale in comparison to the risks of smoking or vaping it with cancer-causing chemicals.

Perhaps the biggest risk associated with nicotine is its high addictive potential. If the desire for nicotine leads to smoking or vaping, this can be a serious detriment to the health of the user. Even if one is able to stick to the “cleaner” methods of nicotine absorption like gums or lozenges, addiction is never a good place to be. Constant cravings and regular expenditures are some of the issues, and though nicotine withdrawal itself cannot hurt you, it is notoriously miserable. These should be reasons enough to steer clear if you think you are remotely at risk for addiction.

So what is a situation in which nicotine use could be warranted? Well, multiple studies have found that nicotine can improve aspects of performance. Specifically, attention, short-term memory, and motor function appear to be enhanced by responsible use. If used sparingly for times requiring heavy focus, nicotine lozenges or gum could have utility.

Another cited benefit of nicotine use is weight loss. Interestingly, it has long been evident that smokers weigh less than non-smokers, on average. Additionally, smokers will often gain weight when they stop smoking. It’s tough to say that nicotine is responsible for this phenomenon, but it’s possible. One theory is that nicotine contributes to insulin resistance in fat cells, making them less likely to take in nutrients. Whether this is true or not, this isn’t a benefit I’d recommend pursuing. Whereas the cognitive benefits present immediately, any significant weight loss would require long-term, regular use of nicotine. The financial costs of this are notable, and you’re certainly risking addiction if you become a regular user. You also may turn to vaping or smoking, in which case the harms will almost certainly outweigh the benefits.

All things considered, it’s difficult to make the case that someone with no prior exposure to nicotine should start now. Nevertheless, hopefully this post helped to differentiate between uses of nicotine that are immensely harmful to health and those which may have subtle benefits. Smoking is clearly detrimental to long-term health, and vaping does not appear to be much better. As of now, the data suggest that infrequent use of low-dose, nicotine-only products (like gum or a lozenge) is the only case in which the performance benefits could be worth pursuing.


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