Cancer has been on the rise for decades, but is nicotine the culprit?

The link between smoking tobacco products and lung cancer, as well as many other health conditions, is no secret. People who smoke cigarettes generally understand there are inherent, dangerous health risks.

Cancer. High Blood Pressure. Heart Disease. Stroke. Diabetes. COPD. Dozens, maybe even 100 more.

You may not know who the Surgeon General is, but they sure try hard to catch your attention every time you pick up a pack of cigarettes. The clinical words are etched in the side, warning caution in a huge, bold print.

Is nicotine what the Surgeon General is so concerned about?

Does nicotine cause cancer?

Today, we’ll answer these two questions, plus eight more to unwrap what it means to cause cancer.

What is nicotine? How does nicotine work?

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Nicotine is a stimulant found in the tobacco plant Nicotiana tabacum.

Nicotine works by aligning to the neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRrs) in the brain. Through this process, nicotine has a unique, simultaneous feeling of sedation and stimulation.

The addictive nature of nicotine occurs because the drug intensifies the dopamine that is released in your brain. It’s safe to say cocaine and amphetamines have the same effect, and while nicotine is tame in comparison, experts believe it may have an added effect because the drug amplifies the brain’s response to the behaviors affected by smoking.

It’s not nicotine in and of itself, but the euphoric feeling that comes when you smoke cigarettes that makes nicotine so addictive. At least, Harvard Medical School says so.

Nicotine has faced heavy scrutiny because it is an extremely active chemical found in tobacco smoke and smokeless tobacco. When cigarettes and chewing tobacco are produced, nicotine is transformed into two nitrosamines, N’ - Nitrosonornicotine (NNN) and 4-(methylnitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanone (NNK).

Curious about the health effects of nicotine? We’ve got you covered.

What is a carcinogen? Are there different types of carcinogens?

The National Human Genome Research Institute defines a carcinogen as a “specific chemical or physical agent that has the ability to cause cancer”, adding that “carcinogens work by interacting with a cell’s DNA and inducing genetic mutations”.

There are three overarching categories of carcinogens:

  • Chemical carcinogens can be natural compounds, including aflatoxin. The mutagens are produced by molds or a fungus and grow in soil, hay, or grains
  • Physical carcinogens include ultraviolet rays from sunlight (hello, melanoma) or radiation exposure from X-rays and other medical procedures. Radioactive materials also occur in the environment and can be carcinogenic
  • Oncogenic, or cancer-causing viruses. These include human papillomaviruses (or HPV) or hepatitis B. The reason vaccines are commonly given for these is to prevent infections from occurring that can cause cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the HPV vaccine prevents 32,000 infections from developing into cancer annually

How do we test for carcinogens?

According to the National Academies Press, the carcinogenic potential of chemicals is evaluated using epidemiologic studies, experimental animal models, and cell models.

Science doesn’t happen in a vacuum, so lab studies can’t independently determine if something will cause cancer in people. However, researchers conduct animal studies to determine similarities in what results to anticipate when humans are exposed to substances.

What’s in a cigarette?

Nicotine is one ingredient in a cigarette, and there are reportedly 7,000 different chemicals in any one cigarette, including 69 known carcinogens. Cigarette ingredients include:

  • Ammonia - a household cleaning ingredient
  • Arsenic - rat poison ingredient
  • Lead - an ingredient in batteries, illegal for paint
  • Tar - used for paving roads

The Surgeon General warns about the dangers of cigarettes because these toxic ingredients can wreak havoc on your body, and endanger the lives of those around you.

Why is quitting cigarettes so difficult?

Cigarettes become addictive because they are designed to be adept and efficient at transporting nicotine directly to your brain.

Nicotine releases dopamine to the body’s central nervous system, producing a feeling of calmness, relaxation, and relief. After nicotine is used habitually, a dependence and withdrawal response occurs.

If you’ve attempted to quit smoking cigarettes before, the sheer difficulty is all too familiar.

Nicotine withdrawal usually begins within just a few hours of the absence. Cravings, depression, irritability, anxiety, increased appetite, moodiness, and restlessness are all feelings that can follow.

The worst part? The nicotine addiction is so powerful, these feelings can last for months, even years.

Is radioactive plutonium carcinogenic?

Plutonium is a radioactive metal, generally combined with other isotopes. Various forms are used to produce nuclear weapons, although plutonium-238 is used for nuclear batteries to create electricity for unmanned spacecraft and interplanetary probes, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Plutonium is produced in nuclear reactors and has been found to cause lung, liver, and bone cancer. Everyone has very insignificant exposure to plutonium from the environment, and potentially from food and drinking water. People who work in or live near facilities that use plutonium may incur significant exposure.

Is nicotine safe? Does nicotine cause cancer?

There have been no significant scientific studies in humans to determine any carcinogenic effects from nicotine or nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products on their own.

What about vaping? E-cigarette illuminati are often quick to tell you that their version of smoke is not as bad, claiming the aerosol is less harmful. Emerging studies from New York University School of Medicine indicate that e-cigarette smoke causes damage to the DNA in lung, heart, and bladder.

A 2015 Frontiers in Oncology study recommended that nicotine products should only be used for people undergoing cancer treatment that require NRTs in order to stop smoking tobacco products.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there is significant evidence indicating NRTs are effective in helping people quit smoking.

Whether you use a lozenge or gum, NRTs work by stimulating brain receptors that target nicotine, helping to lessen nicotine withdrawal symptoms. Because nicotine cravings can lead to relapse, NRTs can act as a threshold for those with severe nicotine addiction.

Health and safety concerns arise when people turn to cigarettes to find the nicotine fix they crave.

Nicotine doesn’t cause cancer. If nicotine gum or lozenges will help you smoke fewer cigarettes, or quit smoking altogether, it’s safe to bet on the benefits of nicotine replacement therapies.