Nicotine is a stimulant found in the tobacco plant, and constitutes the main addictive ingredient of cigarettes. It is most often smoked, but can also be chewed or in rare cases inhaled without being ignited. Nicotine is notorious for being one of the most addictive drugs available, even being compared in dependency risk to heroin and cocaine, and is associated with a wide array of health problems. Tobacco smoking accounts for millions of deaths across the world every year.
Nicotine is widely available in nearly every country, although in the developed world attempts are gradually being made to socially engineer the smoking of nicotine out of society. This is mostly due to its harmful long term effects, which put users at a very high risk of health problems and ultimately death, but another contributing factor is the perception of the habit as being an antisocial one. Tobacco smoking is known to be linked to a wide range of serious health problems, including cardiac failure and cancer. It can also cause a huge number of other negative health issues both in the short and long term ranging from the unpleasant to the life threatening.
Nicotine is somewhat paradoxically considered to be both a stimulant and a relaxant, due to the different effects that it can have on the brain and on nicotine levels in the blood, depending on the mode of absorption. Users of nicotine may experience either alertness or relaxation depending on how the drug is taken. Short, concentrated inhalations will create a stimulant effect, while longer and calmer inhalations can help a person to feel relaxed.
The drug itself is not technically considered very addictive, however when combined with other chemicals found in tobacco and other substances it is known to have significant potential for addiction. Giving up smoking is widely considered to be exceptionally difficult, and solutions such as nicotine patches and electronic cigarettes are available to help make the process easier. Many people however, will eventually succumb to smoking related illnesses despite repeated attempts to give up.
In the form of tobacco, nicotine is widely available in nearly every country in the world, and as such has few street names in the way that other drugs do. Instead, it is referred to in some places in slang terms such as “fags”, “butts”, “smokes” or “cigs”. These vary from country to country, and sometimes from region to region.
The supply channels for tobacco are well established in modern society, with many different brands available worldwide in shops, supermarkets and tobacconists. It is generally available either as “straights”, which are pre-rolled cigarettes, or as “rollies”, which the user rolls using separately purchased tobacco, filters and papers. There is also an established trade in fake or counterfeit cigarettes, which are not sold through authorised channels and are known to be even more dangerous than normal cigarettes.
Chewing tobacco is known informally as “snuff”, “chew” or “spit tobacco”, although chewing of tobacco is somewhat uncommon compared to smoking.
Most users smoke tobacco for its calming effect, although some do so to increase alertness. Others might only smoke in accompaniment with alcohol or in certain social situations, however nearly all smokers smoke at least some of the time out of habit rather than for any ostensible benefits.
The negative effects of smoking are well documented, and are not necessarily as a result of the nicotine itself, but from other harmful chemicals contained in the tobacco. These do not just affect the smoker, but others in close proximity who may inadvertently inhale the tobacco smoke. “Second-hand smoke” accounts for hundreds of thousands of deaths every year, in addition to the 5 million smokers who die every year as a direct result of smoking tobacco. Smoking amongst pregnant women is also known to be potentially harmful to the unborn child, stunting development and causing health complications.
Tobacco dramatically increases the risk of cardiac trouble and lung problems, in addition to causing many different forms of cancer and other health complications. Smoking also causes a number of other side effects which, whilst not life threatening, are unpleasant nevertheless. These include discolouration of the teeth and hands, bad breath and a lingering smell of tobacco smoke on the body and clothes.
The higher the intake of cigarettes, the more chance there is of a user developing serious smoking-related illnesses, and a smoker who regularly smokes for their whole lifetime will be at a high risk of eventually dying as a direct result of illnesses caused by smoking.
Tobacco production is largely dominated by multi-national corporations with presences in many countries, although cigarettes will often be manufactured under license on the continent in which they are intended to be sold. These corporations tend to own and market several different cigarettes brands. This means that a brand purchased in one country will be very similar if not identical to a brand purchased elsewhere in the world, with the main difference being in the packaging depending on regional laws. The tobacco itself will also be similar. Whilst nicotine content varies from brand to brand, it may also vary within the same brand depending on where the cigarettes were manufactured.
Transporting cigarettes from one country to another by individuals is legal, although only in small amounts for personal use, as the selling of cigarettes is heavily regulated and must be carried out under license in most countries. This is largely a mechanic for boosting tax revenue, but also helps to control the industry by ensuring that it operates entirely within the realms of the law.
Many governments around the world, particularly in the developed world, are caught in the paradox of wanting to eliminate smoking from society for health and social reasons, as smoking related illnesses are a tremendous burden on health services, yet not wanting to miss out on the taxes that can be levied. For this reason, smoking has yet to be made fully illegal in any country, although in some regions there are restrictions on where people can smoke. Governments instead choose to increase taxes on cigarettes in order to discourage smoking whilst increasing revenues gained from it.
As well as the legitimate cigarette trade, there is also a global black market in counterfeit cigarettes. These are illegal, yet are still produced and sold in large quantities around the world. They will often look like established brands and are sold at a cheaper price through informal channels, but will not be of the same quality and will often contain harmful chemicals that are far more damaging to the body than those present in ordinary cigarettes.
Governments take a strict approach to counterfeit cigarettes, as in addition to lost tax revenue the adverse health effects of such cigarettes can be very serious. A large proportion of counterfeit cigarettes originate from China, although they are produced in nearly every country where there is legitimate cigarette production.
Smoking in the developed world is generally on the decline due to shifting societal attitudes, publicization of the adverse health effects, and the increasingly prohibitive cost. However tobacco consumption is increasing in the developing world due in part to relaxed laws on tobacco advertising, and the revenue opportunities it provides for developing nations. Overall, the number of smokers in the world is thought to be on the rise, despite it becoming increasingly socially unacceptable in the West.
The addiction signs of smoking can be relatively easy to conceal, making them somewhat difficult to spot. Its stimulant effects are very limited, and so there very few if any obvious physiological signs of tobacco use. However, a nicotine addict who has gone for a prolonged period of time without a cigarette will experience symptoms of withdrawal mainly in the form of cravings and increased irritability.
Smoking causes discolouration of the teeth, hands and nails, and the lingering smell of smoke on one’s clothes and body can be difficult to mask. Frequent washing of hands, brushing of teeth and use of deodorants and breath fresheners may be a sign of smoking.
Smoking is of course legal in most places, and so many people will not feel the need to do so surreptitiously. Frequently going outside to smoke, or “chain-smoking” in which several cigarettes are smoked one after the other are obvious signs of addiction. Feeling the need to smoke in social situations in which no one else is smoking is another sign, as is frequently making spurious excuses to go outside or to be alone. A persistent heavy cough, known as “smoker’s cough”, is another sign, as is excessively long recovery times after suffering illness.
The expensive nature of smoking along with its addictiveness means that smokers can often have little spare disposal income. Whilst relatively few smokers would resort to stealing merely to feed a nicotine habit, persistent money troubles could be a potential sign of nicotine addiction.
Nicotine addiction is renowned for being one of the most difficult habits to break. It is both physiologically and psychologically addictive, and its wide availability makes it exceptionally easy to relapse into addiction. In fact, it is said by some that once addicted to nicotine, it is impossible to ever fully eliminate cravings even many years after.
In the past, the most commonly utilised approach to recovering from nicotine addiction was a self-treating cold turkey one, which whilst still being widely used, is not normally known for its success. Due to the addictive nature of the drug, a substantial amount of willpower is required for this to work in dealing with cravings which, whilst not life threatening, can be difficult to surmount.
As nicotine leaves the body, these cravings will gradually reduce in intensity, although a smoker will still have to find ways of dealing with the psychological aspects. Many smokers will have smoked for a long time as a way of reducing stress, or simply out of boredom or habit. Replacing cigarettes with another less damaging habit can be a way of mitigating this, as is staying away from situations in which a smoker would ordinarily smoke. Indeed, enlisting other people to help a smoker when they are experiencing cravings, or to convince them not to break the habit, can be an effective method of giving up.
Tobacco smoking, particularly over a period of years, can wreak enormous damage to the body. Whilst stopping smoking significantly reduces this risk, the damage may already have been done. People who have smoked for a long period of time will be at an increased susceptibility to heart disease, respiratory disease and cancer, and so it may be advisable to consult a doctor in order to diagnose and treat potential health problems that may occur. A doctor may also be able to prescribe treatment such as nicotine replacement therapies in order to make the process of giving up slightly easier.
Whilst a cold turkey approach is certainly feasible in breaking a nicotine habit, there are a wide range of other therapies available over the counter and off the shelf from shops, supermarkets and pharmacies. These can include nicotine patches, gum, inhalers or electronic cigarettes, all of which deliver nicotine to the blood stream without the harmful chemicals contained within cigarettes. Over time the amount of nicotine administered can be gradually reduced, until the smoker is finally ready to give up completely having successfully broken the psychological habit.
More unorthodox techniques to help stop smoking are also available, including acupuncture and hypnosis. The effectiveness of these techniques is subject to debate.
The best way to prevent the damage that smoking can cause is, of course, by not starting in the first place.