Cigarette Addiction: Chemistry, Neurochemistry, and Nicotine


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For many in the Baby Boom generation, the cigarette is a symbol from a different time. It was seemingly simpler generation that may best be forgotten. Cigarette smoke contains toxin that are addictive and toxic. Image by Gerat

Cigarette smoke contains elements that are addictive and toxic. Image by Geralt.

Smoking a cigarette is a ritual for many – whether during a coffee break or after a meal – but it’s a ritual that is based around harmful chemicals, whether the nicotine comes in the form of a conventional cigarette, or an e-cigarette.

Processed tobacco in cigarettes contains more than 7000 different chemical additives. The tobacco leaf itself contains thousands of chemical components-of which nicotine is just one component.

The Tobacco industry adds extra chemicals to help the cigarette burn evenly and to preserve taste. The resultant ‘drag’ from the cigarette is potent mix of chemicals that, over time, cause illness and potentially death.

Each puff from the cigarette contains nicotine-type chemicals and many toxins. Of the potentially 4800 different components, research indicates that many increase addiction apart from nicotine itself. Such molecules are organic chemicals that are known to cause brain damage- molecules such as benzene, toluene, and xylene. These organic molecules, once used in sniffing glue-and presently used in huffing, can cause cancer as well.

Benzene, Toluene, and Xylene? Oh, My…

Benzene, toluene, and xylene  are ‘solvent-type’ molecules (readily found in chemical research laboratories) contained in gasoline-blended fuel. These molecules, first discovered in the 1800s, serve as solvents and reactants in chemical synthesis, and as molecules of fundamental research, as well. According to researchers at the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical School, the effects of these molecules upon the brain are at least two-fold: producing euphoria as well as behaviors reinforcing further abuse. According to their results, published in the journal Psychopharmacology in 2014, toluene is similar to cocaine and valium. The researchers found identical addictive behaviors in people and laboratory test-subjects-rats or mice.

Nicotine in the  Smoky Cocktail

Although nicotine is addictive by itself, it’s necessary to consider the chemical mixtures in cigarette smoke in the addiction process. The nicotine-type molecules found in cigarette smoke are by-products of the burn-process. (Every tobacco leaf contains more than just pure nicotine-the leaf biosynthesizes, or creates, a group of different nicotine molecules. The creation of nicotine molecules is dependent, in part, on soil, water, and sunlight. Plants synthesize these molecules as responses to predatory insects and animals-they act as a bitter-tasting poison.)

In research from the Commonwealth of Virginia University and University of Geneva published in 2015, Professors Etter and Eissenberg show that nicotine is not a strong enough agent to induce the seemingly irreversible addiction that many smokers experience. Other evidence suggests routine smokers who use smoking cessation drugs and e-cigarettes can quit the habit.  Although long-term studies need completion, the results are positive.

What Else is in Cigarette Smoke?

There are approximately 4800 molecular agents in cigarette smoke. Cigarette smoke, classified as an aerosol, contains both particulate matter and vapor.  The molecular agents include benzene, toluene and xylene, as mentioned. Other known components are carcinogens that include PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and metals (cadmium, arsenic, and nickel as well). When adding up the cumulative effects from all the components of cigarettes versus pure nicotine- long-term smoking is shown to alter the brain’s chemistry in dramatic fashion.

Brain Physiology (Chemistry) of a Habitual Cigarette Smoker

Adding evidence to the notion of altered brain chemistry is MRI results of the brains from individuals who smoke regularly. Research performed by an international team from Harvard, University of Edinburgh, McGill University of Canada confirmed what post-mortem studies show in habitual smokers: an accelerated aging of the brain. Individuals who started their habits at the age of approximately 12 were subjected MRI images of their brains 40 years later. Their brain-masses were far less than their counterparts who never smoked.

What about E-Cigarettes?

E-cigarettes currently contain a mixture of nicotine, solvents (propylene glycol and glycerol), and flavorings. While the most damaging effects from conventional cigarettes are absent while vaping, carcinogens are present. Although there are carcinogens in e-cigarettes, they are not present in the sheer volume in which they exist in conventional cigarettes. One of the more significant components is acrolein-a toxic, organic molecule research has identified as a carcinogen. There may also be air quality hazards resulting from e-cigarettes – you can read more in this article by Decoded Science expert, Elizabeth Klusinske.

On the other hand, Dr. R. Anne Stetler and co-w0rkers cite evidence that nicotine pre-conditions neurons. Nicotine improves the motor skills of Parkinson’s patients and seems to improve aspects of cognitive skills in patients with dementia.


The terms Nicotine and Cigarettes are mistaken for one another. Is Nicotine worse than the common Cigarette? Copyright Image by John A Jaksich. All Rights Reserved.

E-Cigarettes versus Conventional Cigarettes?

There is no doubt of nicotine’s addictive properties.  Conventional cigarettes, however, engage multiple sites within the brain in an addictive mode of action. Over extended periods of time, the brains of habitual smokers become re-molded — and long-time smokers find it almost impossible to quit. Evidence also points to cigarettes as potential causative factors in senior dementia- especially for long-term users of cigarettes.

Should Cigarettes Be Regulated by the FDA, Like Other Drugs?

The short answer is yes—but smokers and the tobacco industry balk at the notion. One major reason for regulation comes from understanding the neurochemistry in the brain of a smoker. There’s a ‘smoking gun’ that points to an alteration of neurochemistry and worse yet- contributes to cancer. Although there are indicators that nicotine alone can be beneficial for patients with neurological disorders, there’s no doubt that cigarettes cause far more problems than than they solve.

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