EDGE Best Practice Series: What is Nicotine?

/ 4 minute read

EDGE Best Practice Series: What is Nicotine?

Nicotine has been a part of human culture for what is estimated to be over 2000 years. It Originates from the plant “Nicotiana Tabacum” or as we all know it, tobacco. The substance has been used as both a medicine and stimulant by different cultures for almost as long as history has been recorded.

Whether you are a smoker or vaper, it is important to understand the nature of the substance that keeps us tied to our habits. You might even be surprised to discover just how long and complicated it’s history with humans has been.

Where Did Nicotine Come From?

Consumption of the tobacco plant has been prolific in human cultures for a long time, first being utilised by indigenous tribes as a part of medicinal ritual ceremonies. The tobacco plant itself is native to the Americas. While it is not known exactly how it reached European shores, it is believed to have been brought back by Christopher Columbus, who settled in Portugal for a time in the 1400s following his famous first expedition to the “New World”.

Both the plant Nicotiana tabacum, and the compound nicotine itself are named for Jean Nicot. He was a French ambassador to Portugal who, in 1550, sent tobacco seeds to Paris for cultivation. A crude form of nicotine was known to scientists by 1571.

Smoking culture rapidly took western society by storm, with pipe and cigar smoking spreading rapidly through the 1600s. The tobacco industry was established and growing by the 1700s with more and more people taking up the habit. Not only popular for smoking, tobacco was even used as an insecticide by 1763.

In 1828, nicotine was first isolated from the tobacco plant in its purest form by Dr William Heinrich Posselt, and chemist Karl Ludwig Reinmann. These German scientists were the first to identify nicotine as a poison. Despite this discovery, the invention of the first patented machine for mass-production of paper cigarettes caused tobacco consumption to explode in 1880.

It wasn’t until these later stages of the 19th century that lawmakers began to recognise the harmful effects of nicotine, banning tobacco sale to minors in 26 US states by 1890. However, it wasn’t until as recently as 1964 that the US surgeon general published a study linking smoking with heart disease and lung cancer. With the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only officially recognising nicotine’s addictive properties by 1994.

In the modern age, nicotine is available to the public in a wide variety of forms. Smoking the tobacco leaf remains the most commonly used method of nicotine consumption, but it can also be delivered by Nicotine Replacement Therapies like patches and gums, not to mention vaping products. We understand more about the harm nicotine and smoking can cause now than at any point in history, yet the addictive nature of nicotine itself is likely why smoking remains one of the leading global causes of preventable death.

The only known use of nicotine besides human consumption is as a pesticide, however it has declined in use since World War Two and has even been banned in recent years due to the potential harm it poses to mammals (like humans!) in high concentrations.

The Science of Nicotine – What is it?

Nicotine is the highly addictive compound found naturally within the tobacco plant. Nicotine represents around 5% of any given tobacco plant’s total weight. Despite only making up such a small part of the plant material we smoke, it is nicotine that keeps people smoking even when they might want to quit.

Nicotine is an organic compound and belongs to a group of substances called alkaloids. Alkaloids are compounds which contain nitrogen, that are known to have marked physiological effects on humans. In fact, nicotine has been classified as a stimulant, much like caffeine or cocaine. Stimulants excite bodily functions but in particular the brain and central nervous system. They are known to induce alertness, elevated mood, wakefulness, increased motor activity and a decrease in appetite – all effects synonymous with smoking.

How Do We Absorb Nicotine?

When tobacco is smoked, a nicotine patch is applied, or gum chewed, the nicotine passes through your body’s biological membranes. These membranes are in your mouth and lungs primarily, however in the case of patches the nicotine is absorbed dermally (through the skin), ultimately ending up in your bloodstream. From here it is delivered to various parts of the body, but it is particularly well-absorbed by the brain, taking only around 10-20 seconds to reach it after taking a puff on a cigarette.

How well nicotine is absorbed by a person can depend on a surprising number of factors beyond just the delivery method. Race, gender, and age have all been observed to impact absorption rates and metabolism. People of African descent for example were observed to clear nicotine levels slower than those of white ethnicity, meaning it remains in their system longer. People of Chinese descent were also recorded to absorb less nicotine per cigarette than those of Latin or White descent. Indeed, it has even been observed that women metabolise nicotine faster than men.

The very latest developments in nicotine have been brought about by the vaping industry itself, with the development of nicotine salt products like EDGE Bar Salts. You can learn more about nic salt e-liquids in our blog, but essentially the standard nicotine compound is chemically fused with an acid molecule during manufacture. This essentially neutralises the naturally hash alkaline taste of the nicotine which means a vaping device can deliver a much higher strength nicotine dose like the 20mg typical of nic salt e-liquids, without any harsh throat hit. Nic salts also absorb faster than freebase (the nicotine used in normal e-liquid) passing more easily through the blood-brain barrier.

To Learn more about the impact excessive nicotine consumption can have on your body, check out the EDGE Best Practice Series: Understanding Nicotine Addiction.


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