Nicotine is the addictive drug in tobacco products. Cigarettes, cigars, smokeless tobacco and nearly all e-cigarettes contain nicotine. People who use tobacco products quickly become addicted to nicotine and have a very hard time stopping.

Almost all tobacco users are dependent on nicotine. Research suggests that nicotine is as addictive as heroin, cocaine, or alcohol. That's one of the reasons it's so hard to quit. Nicotine is not safe.

Nicotine During Pregnancy

  • Nicotine exposure harms the developing fetus, and causes lasting consequences for the developing brain and lung function in newborns, according to the U.S. Surgeon General.
  • Nicotine exposure also affects maternal and fetal health during pregnancy and can result in low birth weights, preterm delivery and stillbirth.

Nicotine in Youth and Young Adults

Nicotine negatively impacts brain development and changes brain chemistry. Human brain development continues until the age of 25, and nicotine use during adolescence and young adulthood has been associated with lasting cognitive and behavioral impairments, including:

  • Memory
  • Attention
  • Learning

Nicotine causes specific changes in the brain that make it more vulnerable to chronic use of illicit drugs. In high enough doses, nicotine is also a poison—children have been harmed or even died from drinking e-cigarette liquid.

Nicotine Replacement Therapies

While it may seem counterintuitive, nicotine replacement therapies (NRTs), such as gum, patches, inhalers, nasal spray and lozenges can help tobacco users quit. These products provide a lower level of nicotine that can help reduce withdrawal symptoms while the person transitions to a new tobacco-free life. Withdrawal from nicotine can mean irritability, craving, depression, anxiety, cognitive and attention deficits, sleep disturbances, and increased appetite. The various nicotine replacement products each work differently, so it's important to talk to your doctor or pharmacist to figure out which one(s) might be right for you.

Page last updated: February 19, 2020

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