Are Tobacco and Nicotine Addictive?

A current theory in the history of the use of tobacco is that its use is compulsive and similar to other forms of drug abuse. In the Americas the inability of the Indians to abstain from tobacco raised problems for the Catholic Church. The Indians insisted on smoking even in church, as they had been accustomed to doing in their own places of worship. In 1575 a church council issued an order forbidding the use of tobacco in churches throughout the whole of Spanish America.

Soon, however, the missionary priests themselves were using tobacco so frequently that it was necessary to make laws to prevent even them from using tobacco during worship.

As tobacco smoking spread through England the demand often exceeded the supply and prices soared. London tobacco shops were equipped with balances; the buyer placed silver coins in one pan and might receive in the other pan, ounce for ounce, only as much tobacco as he gave silver. The high price, however, did not curb demand.

In 1610 an English observer noted: “Many a young nobleman’s estate is altogether spent and scattered to nothing in smoke. This befalls in a shameful and beastly fashion, in that a man’s estate runs out through his nose, and he wastes whole days, even years, in drinking of tobacco; men smoke even in bed.” A failure of a local tobacco crop could make men desperate. Sailors approaching the island of Niacin the Malay Archipelago were greeted with cries: “Tobacco, strong tobacco. We die, sir, if we have no tobacco!”

The addictive nature of tobacco was noted at about the same time by Sir Francis Bacon, who wrote: “The use of tobacco is growing greatly and conquers men with a certain secret pleasure, so that those who have once become accustomed thereto can later hardly be restrained there from.” vape juice

The invention of cigarette-rolling machines made the availability of tobacco even easier and was seen by some as an additional cause for alarm. The following editorial in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (1882) states the case well:

Our greatest danger now seems to be from an excess of cigarette smoking. The numbers of young men who smoke cigarettes is almost startling. It is not only students, but even school boys in their teens, who vigorously and openly indulge in this dangerous habit. . . . A little cigarette, filled with mild tobacco which lasts for only a few minutes, appears harmless enough. But the very ease with which these bits of paper can be lighted and smoked adds considerably to the tendency to indulge to excess . . . One of the pernicious fashions connected with cigarette smoking is “inhaling”. The ideal cigarette smoker is never as happy as when he inhales the smoke, holds it in his air passages for some time, and then blows it out in volume through the nose and mouth. If he realized that “the smoker who draws the greatest amount of smoke and keeps it longest in contact with the living membrane of the air passages undoubtedly takes the largest dose of the oil”, he might at least endeavor to modify his smoking in this respect. These are dangers super-added to those attendant on the ordinary use of tobacco [other than machine rolled cigarettes], and should be considered by all medical men.

Current Controversy and Theory

It has long been suspected that tobacco was a drug of high abuse potential and that nicotine was the critical substance. However, the controversy has remained until recently. Some have held that nicotine was simply a toxin delivered by tobacco smoke and that it had little to do with behaviour. Others felt that nicotine actually was a noxious or aversive element in cigarette smoke and limited how much a person smoked. Still others were convinced that nicotine itself was an abusable drug and the key to compulsive tobacco use.


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