The Science of Nicotine Addiction

Nicotine Addiction and how to break it.

Only a smoker knows how addictive is nicotine. If you go too long without smoking, you start feeling familiar craving that urges you to have a cigarette as soon as possible. This craving is intense and uncomfortable, though, more like a really deep itch that you have to scratch. Smoking is addictive on two fronts: physical and psychological. The psychological aspect of addiction to smoking is actually about the habitual nature of it. But the physical part of smoking is due to the presence of nicotine because nicotine is very addictive and causes physical dependency. In this article, we will cover everything you wanted to know about the nicotine addiction.

Although, quitting is not easy, but it’s very much possible. Hundreds of thousands of smokers have done it and, if an addict, you can do it too. The good news according to CDC’s fact sheet is that today, there are more ex-smokers than current smokers.

What is Nicotine Addiction?

Nicotine is usually a colorless or in some cases yellowish liquid. Small doses of nicotine are used as a stimulant, mostly in tobacco and pesticides, however, higher doses can be toxic and can interfere with the normal functioning of autonomic nerve and skeletal muscle cells.

Nicotine addiction is dependence on the drug nicotine, however, when we say nicotine addiction, we usually refer to the addiction to tobacco products that contain nicotine. Nicotine possesses mood-altering capabilities which give the user a temporary high. This high is extremely pleasing and makes the user want to use it more and more. Put simply, once you use it for long enough, you can’t stop using it. And those who try to quit, have unpleasant withdrawal symptoms which momentarily go away when they get the fix in the form of a nicotine dose.

Symptoms of Nicotine Addiction

Symptoms of Nicotine Addiction

Why is Nicotine Addictive?

According to National Institute of Drug Abuse, nicotine gets its addictive nature by activating a reward pathway in brain circuitry. The chemical that makes you crave for nicotine is called neurotransmitter dopamine, and nicotine increases its levels in reward circuits. Long-term users experience changes in their brain induced by nicotine, that lead to addiction.

That’s the chemical reasoning behind nicotine addiction, now let’s talk in a layman’s terms.

How addictive a drug can be, depends on many factors, mainly on how it enters your body. The fastest way for a drug to have its impact is by smoking it, and that’s why smokers get hooked to tobacco big time. When you use nicotine, it takes about ten seconds to reach your brain after entering your body, as it’s instantly absorbed by your bloodstream and transported to all the organs of your body. When nicotine reaches the brain, it makes the brain release adrenaline, that gives the user a feeling of high. This feeling is extremely pleasurable but doesn’t last long. After a little while, the user feels tired and down, wanting the high again.

This craving forces the user to keep taking nicotine, however, the human body is naturally tolerant to nicotine. As you continue to take nicotine for a while, your body starts to require higher amounts of nicotine to get the same high. This repeated cycle of nicotine cravings leads to addiction, which is very hard to break. Below are the most common triggers relapse triggers, familiar to every smoker:

Most common nicotine intake triggers.

You have to keep taking nicotine, even when you want to quit. The amount and chemistry of hormones released by your body change when you start taking nicotine. But when you stop, it has to readjust, which is very hard for it, and causes hormone misbalance. The end result is that your body is in a continuous state of adjusting the hormones after your abstinence. This state of the body is commonly known as withdrawal symptoms, which can be very hard to cope with.

Depending on their body, current state of mind, and circumstances, breaking addiction can be harder for some people than others. Several researches show that teenagers are more sensitive to nicotine and get addicted more easily. According to CDC, 90% of cigarette smokers try their first smoke by age 18, and 99% by age 26.

How Addictive Is Nicotine?

Humans can experience addiction in two ways: psychological addiction and physical addiction. An example of psychological addiction is doing something extremely thrilling, e.g. gambling, bungee jumping, skydiving, driving too fast. These activities trigger reward centers of the brain, however, don’t have any physical impact on the body. We can relate it to classical conditioning as shown by Pavlov’s dog experiment, where dog started to associate certain signals (such as the ringing of a bell) with food and would start drooling on those signals, even when there was no food.

On the other hand, physical addictions tend to result in physical withdrawal symptoms, e.g. when a person suddenly stops drinking or taking a drug they’re addicted to. What really makes nicotine extremely addictive is that it’s one of the very few addictions that has both physical and psychological impact. On top of that, it also has social impact i.e. when you meet your other smoker friends, you start getting the urge to smoke. So, in addition to affecting you physiologically, psychologically, nicotine also affects you socially, and this is why most experts agree that nicotine is one of, if not the, hardest addictions to break.

Nicotine Addiction Vs Other Addictions

Some experts believe heroin and crack cocaine are the two most addictive drugs, with nicotine at the third spot, however, most agree that nicotine is the hardest to kick. Taking a look at the ratings of different drugs published in New York Times, on Aug 2, 1994 by two highly regarded experts reveals that nicotine tops the charts when it comes to dependence, and also is the highest ranked overall drug addiction:

Rating by Dr. Jack E. Henningfield of the National Institute on Drug Abuse
(1 = Most serious  6 = Least serious)

Substance   WithdrawalReinforcementToleranceDependenceIntoxication
Nicotine        34215
Heroin          22122
Cocaine         41433
Alcohol         13341
Caffeine        56556
Marijuana       65664

Rating by Dr. Neal L. Benowitz of the University of California at San Francisco
(1 = Most serious  6 = Least serious)

Substance   WithdrawalReinforcementToleranceDependenceIntoxication
Nicotine        34416
Heroin          22222
Cocaine         31133
Alcohol         13441
Caffeine        45355
Marijuana       56564


No matter what substance you consider, there are some serious users and then there are some infrequent, amateur users. To understand how overpowering a substance can be, we can compare the percentage of people who, after having used a substance, can still contain themselves to occasional use. In his book About Addictions: Notes from Psychology, Neuroscience, and NLP, the famous author Richard Gray mentions large government surveys that show how many addicts of different substances are regular users and how many are occasional users.

Substance% Regular Users% Occasional Users
Tobacco cigarettes (nicotine)9010

 Although there will always be a difference of opinion when it comes to the most addictive substance, however, it’s a fact that nicotine is one of the top three, if not the top most addictive substance.