Short answer: no! Nicotine replacement therapies like gum, lozenges, and patches work because they release a small amount of nicotine into your bloodstream to help minimize withdrawal symptoms. And while we all learned in school that any amount of nicotine in your system is bad and could lead to increased use of other drugs, the amount of nicotine that you’d get from any of the nicotine replacement therapies is far less addictive than cigarettes. When used correctly, can actually help you become less dependent on nicotine and eventually cut back on cigarettes or vaping.
What does the term “Gateway Drug” mean?
Gateway drugs are “the drugs people are first exposed to and experiment with,” according to the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, “While not everyone who tries alcohol, tobacco, or marijuana becomes addicted to drugs, most addicts began their habits with one of these drugs.” Essentially, gateway drugs are ones that, while not as addictive as drugs like cocaine or heroin, may put the user at greater risk of using or abusing harder drugs in the future.
Studies of mice have shown that prior exposure to nicotine can affect your brain chemistry in a way that increases the effects of stronger drugs, such as cocaine, in the future. In addition, a 25-year study found an association between use of marijuana early in life and more frequent drug use later in life.
However, the gateway drug theory has become controversial over the last several decades - while we know how drugs impact mice, there’s no ethical way to study whether there’s a similar effect on people, so most conclusions about drug use over time are based on associations at best. There’s also research that strongly links other factors - such as poverty - to drug use later in life more than drug use early in life.
While it’s hard to know if drug use early in life is the sole cause of drug use later in life, there’s definitely a connection: data from the Centers for Disease Control shows that from heavy drinking to hallucinogens to heroin, smokers are two to five times more likely than non-smokers to report having used or abused illicit drugs in the previous month.
What is nicotine gum? Is it safe?
On the contrary, nicotine gum is one of many nicotine replacement therapy options (along with patches and lozenges) available to safely help heavy smokers become less dependent on nicotine. Unlike regular gum, it’s chewed and held in your mouth for about 30 minutes, during which it releases a small amount (2 to 4 milligrams - compared to 10-12 milligrams in a regular cigarette) of nicotine. Similarly, nicotine lozenges contain the same amount of nicotine, and you can suck on them instead of chewing, making them an equally-effective option.
Nicotine replacement therapies work by releasing a small amount of nicotine to eliminate withdrawal symptoms throughout the day. The idea is that over time, you’ll start to crave nicotine less frequently until you no longer need it - so you might start out taking 20 pieces of gum that contain 4 milligrams of nicotine over the course of a day (this is the absolute maximum daily amount - and is only recommended for people who smoke more than 20 cigarettes a day) and over the course of several weeks or months cut down the number of pieces until you no longer need them regularly.
If used as directed, these nicotine replacement therapies are considered safe and effective to become less dependent on nicotine cut back on cigarettes or vaping. People who continue to experience withdrawal symptoms after stopping the use of nicotine gum or lozenges often take too little, or may have stopped the therapies too early and aren’t fully weaned off of nicotine.
Is nicotine gum a gateway drug to serious illegal drugs?
While nicotine gum and lozenges contain small amounts of nicotine, they don’t include the other chemicals found in cigarettes - such as formaldehyde, arsenic, and tar. Nicotine is addictive (it’s the ingredient in cigarettes that makes you addicted to all the other toxic ingredients), but; the amount of nicotine in gum or lozenge is much less than that of a cigarette. And without the other dangerous chemicals, exposure to nicotine alone is far less hazardous than smoking cigarettes. Some studies have even shown that in isolation, nicotine is no more harmful than caffeine.
Nicotine replacement therapies have been available for more than 35 years over the counter. The vast majority use nicotine replacements to wean themselves off of cigarettes, and most people don’t use the products long-term. Most people who do use nicotine gum or lozenges for an extended period of time (usually longer than six months or a year) do so to avoid experiencing withdrawal symptoms or because they’re afraid they’ll pick up smoking again.
“Most people say that quitting smoking is the hardest thing they've ever done," says John Hughes, MD, a psychiatry professor at the University of Vermont in Burlington, and former spokesperson for the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco. "With the help of the gum, they've finally been able to quit, and they're scared to stop using it. Some say to me, 'If there's even a 10% chance that I'm going to return to smoking without the gum, I'm going to keep using it.” source
Does teen vaping lead to cigarette smoking? Why vaping is a gateway drug
Though vaping is marketed as “less dangerous” than cigarettes, it’s still not safe or considered an effective way to quit smoking. While smoking e-cigarettes will expose you to fewer toxic chemicals than regular cigarettes, they still contain nicotine and so are addictive. E-cigarettes can sometimes contain more nicotine than regular cigarettes, and the cartridges can also be used to smoke other substances, such as marijuana.
The challenge is that e-cigarettes are often the first exposure to smoking for teenagers, not a smoking cessation tool. According to the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey, 27.5% of high school students and 10.5% of middle school students reported smoking e-cigarettes in the last 30 days. More than a million teenagers smoke e-cigarettes daily. Nearly one in four high school students and one in 15 middle school students smoke e-cigarettes, and e-cigarettes are the most commonly used tobacco product among teenagers. And studies have found that teenagers start smoking e-cigarettes in middle and high school - whose first exposure to smoking is through vaping and e-cigarettes are more likely to start smoking cigarettes later in life.
“Kids have such a poor understanding of vaping products — it’s extraordinary,” says Michael Blaha, M.D., M.P.H., a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University. “Sometimes they don’t know that there’s nicotine in them or what the dose is, or what the impact of the flavorings might be. But because using these products is more socially acceptable than smoking, they might think that electronic cigarettes are perfectly safe.” source
Because of the dangers associated with e-cigarettes, the FDA has released new regulations over the last several years aimed at restricting access among youth, and individual states have instituted bans and restrictions on e-cigarettes as well.