Why Is Nicotine So Addictive?

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A chemical model drawing of nicotine on chalkboard. Nicotine C10H14N2

©Shutterstock/Jurgis Mankauskas

Tobacco use is the top preventable cause of disease and death in the United States. Cigarettes cause more than 480,000 premature deaths in the United States each year. That’s about 1,300 deaths every day.

Once they start smoking, people usually have a hard time quitting. This is because of the addictive chemical nicotine, a main ingredient in tobacco. But what makes nicotine so addictive?

Brain training

Consuming nicotine—through regular cigarettes or vaping—leads to the release of the chemical dopamine in the human brain. As with many drugs, dopamine prompts or “teaches” the brain to repeat the same behavior (such as using tobacco) over and over. This is also known as reinforcement.

But here’s the catch: The brain gets a dopamine “hit” from nicotine every time a person takes a puff on a cigarette or inhales vapor from an e-cigarette that contains nicotine.

Vicious cycle

A typical smoker takes 10 or more puffs on each cigarette, so a person who smokes about one pack (25 cigarettes) daily gets at least 250 "hits" every day. That’s a lot of “teaching” the brain to keep using nicotine. And repeated use increases the risk of addiction.  

Whether a person consumes nicotine through tobacco or vaping, its reinforcing effects might be much more harmful than the user imagines.

This might also be why teens who try vaping (using electronic devices like JUUL) often switch to regular cigarettes—to get more and more of the nicotine that the brain now craves.

Do you know a smoker who wishes they could quit? Learn how you may be able to help.

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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