Nicotine is the most widely used drug of abuse. It’s usually taken by smoking or chewing tobacco, which then releases the nicotine, and is used by millions of people around the world. Nicotine works by travelling rapidly from lungs to brain (in about seven seconds) where it stimulates the release of dopamine, an important brain neurotransmitter involved in mood, appetite and other brain functions. Although usually taken for its tranquillising and mildly mood-elevating properties, nicotine actually seems to have both a stimulant and a depressant effect – the effect at any time may depend on the circumstances in which it is used. So it may help with concentration or relax the user.

Nicotine is generally recognised to be one of the most addictive of all drugs.

Users can quickly become dependent on its effects (in the most vulnerable, it takes just a few cigarettes to get hooked on the habit). If someone suddenly stops taking nicotine, they usually experience prolonged withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety and mood swings. This causes them to crave the drug in order to try to reverse these unpleasant feelings. As a result the habit is hard to break.

The fact that smoking or chewing tobacco is not illegal and has some social acceptance (although it has becoming much less so in recent years) makes it harder to give up. Many argue that if tobacco were to be discovered today, it would be considered too dangerous to be licensed for human consumption. As a pure drug, nicotine has few adverse effects on physical health, however it does raise blood pressure and accelerates the progression of heart and arterial disease. But it’s the other chemicals taken in along with nicotine which do much of the damage. When tobacco burns as a cigarette is smoked, it releases hundreds of other constituents. It is these chemicals, described below, that pose the greatest risk to health.

Smoking increases the risks of diseases

Smoking increases the risk of cancer in almost every organ and tissue of the body, but especially cancer of the lung, throat and stomach. Heart disease, stroke and serious lung disorders, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (commonly known as chronic bronchititis and emphysema) are just some of the reasons why smokers are much more likely to die young, often years before their non-smoking peers. It’s estimated that smoking accounts for more than 110,000 premature deaths in the UK each year.

There are more than 4,000 chemicals in cigarette smoke, some of which are well known for their toxicity. Some cigarettes include flavourings include childhood favourites such as cocoa, vanilla, liquorice, sugar and even honey.

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