Is Nicotine Bad For You?

By Andrew Yocum, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
April 14, 2022

Cigarette smoking, or tobacco use disorder (TUD), is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States.

Cigarettes cause more deaths than HIV, illegal drug use, alcohol use, and motor vehicle accidents combined each year.

Smoking can also contribute to developing diseases including cancer, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM). 

Though the dangers of smoking cigarettes have long been established, the data is less conclusive when it comes to nicotine. Nicotine, the active chemical agent in tobacco, is extremely addictive.

But is it as dangerous as the tar and toxic gases that cause serious illness and death when they’re burned and released from cigarettes?

In this article, I will outline the history of nicotine and smoking cigarettes.

I’ll talk about how much nicotine is in cigarettes and a single JUUL pod.

I’ll also cover the effects of nicotine on the mind and body, and the side effects associated with nicotine use.

The History

Nicotine has been recognized and studied as the central active ingredient in tobacco since the 19th century.

But it wasn’t until 1962 that scientists and physicians suggested that the people who smoke cigarettes may be addicted to nicotine.

In that year, the Royal College of Physicians released a report called Smoking and Health.

The authors changed our understanding of what makes the habit so pervasive—from a primarily psychological and social behavior to one that is physically addictive. 

Just two years after the Royal College of Physicians’ report, the U.S. Surgeon General reported that the use of tobacco is “reinforced and perpetuated by the pharmacological actions of nicotine.”

But it wasn’t until 1979 that the surgeon general published additional reports on tobacco, nicotine dependence, and addiction. 

Today, there is a wealth of evidence that nicotine is highly addictive, and that tar (a term used to refer to several chemicals found in cigarette smoke) is significantly responsible for the harmful effects of smoking.

But what about nicotine on its own?

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What is Nicotine?

Nicotine is a mild stimulant and one of thousands of chemical compounds present in the tobacco plant.

Though nicotine is naturally found in tobacco, some additives found in cigarettes and other tobacco products may make it easier for your body to absorb more nicotine.

Nicotine is not what makes smoking deadly.

But it is what makes smoking cigarettes so addictive.

Nicotine addiction can make it difficult for smokers and other tobacco users to quit smoking.

How Much Nicotine is in a Cigarette?

Depending on the type of cigarette, a single cigarette may have anywhere from 6-28 mg of nicotine.

There are many other chemical compounds in cigarettes, many of which are harmful to human health.

Some of these chemical components include:

  • Arsenic: This toxic chemical has been linked to cancer of the lung, skin, liver, and bladder.
  • Benzene: Known to cause cancer, particularly leukemia. 
  • Cadmium: Linked to lung, kidney, and prostate cancer.
  • Formaldehyde: Often used in embalming cadavers. This preservative has been linked to leukemia and respiratory cancer.
  • Polonium-210: This radioactive element has been linked to several cancers found in animals.

How Much Nicotine is in a JUUL Pod?

A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 99% of electronic cigarettes (a.k.a. e-cigarettes) sold in the U.S. contain nicotine.

JUUL is a brand of e-cigarette shaped like a USB drive.

It’s battery-powered, and works by heating a nicotine-containing liquid to produce an inhalable aerosol.

A single JUUL pod contains as much nicotine as 20 regular cigarettes.

Effects of Nicotine On The Mind & Body

Experts agree that nicotine is highly addictive, and that what keeps many smokers in the habit of smoking cigarettes is nicotine addiction.

Experts also agree that smoking is harmful to human health.

The effects of nicotine alone on the body are more contested.

Part of this stems from the difficulty of isolating the effects of nicotine from the effects of the other 5,000-plus chemicals present in cigarettes. 

One report shows that medicinal nicotine—like that found in gum, patches, lozenges, inhalers, and sprays—does not increase the risk of cancer, heart attack, or stroke.

But another review that looked at the effects of nicotine in cigarettes and elsewhere found that the chemical does pose certain health hazards, including an increased risk of cardiovascular, respiratory, and gastrointestinal disorders.

Beyond its addictive properties, researchers are also looking into nicotine’s potential beneficial effects on the mind.

Human studies have found that nicotine on its own may have cognitive-enhancing effects, including:

  • Improved attention, working memory, and fine motor skills
  • Improved episodic memory
  • Increased dopamine and improved mood
  • Appetite suppression
  • Slowed progression in people with early stages of Alzheimer’s

Side Effects

Because it’s addictive, the primary side effect of nicotine use is the difficulty to stop smoking or using nicotine.

Additional side effects of nicotine use may include:

Side effects of nicotine withdrawal may include:

Nicotine deaths

Cigarette smoking kills more than 480,000 Americans each year.

Though the data on non-smoking nicotine deaths isn’t widely known, data shows it’s possible to overdose on nicotine alone.

In humans, a fatal dose of nicotine is estimated to be about 50-60 mg.

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Treatment Options

Quitting smoking can be difficult, but there are many treatment options available, including:

  • Medications: Also known as nicotine replacement therapy. Some of these medications may require a prescription, but others don’t.
  • Therapy: Working with an individual or group therapist can provide effective support when you’re experiencing cravings and other bothersome withdrawal symptoms.

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?
Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is nicotine bad for you?
Nicotine is the key active ingredient in tobacco and is highly addictive. Cigarette smoking is extremely harmful to human health and can lead to cardiovascular disease, cancer, and death. The effects of nicotine alone are less well understood. More research is needed to determine the health risks nicotine poses by itself.
Does nicotine cause cancer?
Nicotine is one of the chemical compounds in cigarettes, and cigarette smoking causes a wide array of cancers. Nicotine on its own, however, may not cause cancer.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

Andrew Yocum, MD

Dr Andrew Yocum is a board certified emergency physician. He graduated Summa Cum Laude from Kent State University with a Bachelor of Science in Molecular Biology before attending Northeast Ohio Medical University where he would earn his Medical Doctorate (MD).