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Re-thinking nicotine and its effects

Nicotine removed from tobacco smoke is not as harmful as was once thought, a recent Truth Initiative white paper reminds us. Nicotine by itself does not cause cancer. While it may contribute to heart disease and other health problems, nicotine is certainly much less harmful than tobacco smoke. In fact, nicotine can actually provide some benefits, such as improving attention and memory.

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“We need to rethink nicotine and its effects,” said Raymond Niaura, director of Science and Training at Truth Initiative’s Schroeder Institute, and author of the article. “Although nicotine is addictive, its impact varies greatly depending on the product.” The most addictive form of nicotine is inhaled in tobacco smoke. In contrast, nicotine replacement therapies that help smokers quit, such as nicotine gum and the patch, do not pose a significant risk of abuse. New nicotine products—such as electronic cigarettes—likely fall somewhere in the middle, Niaura explains.

Given the devastating health consequences of smoking, Niaura argues policymakers should continue to encourage youth to abstain from tobacco and nicotine. At the same time, they should encourage adult smokers who cannot or will not quit tobacco to move to less harmful products. He notes that the FDA has found Swedish snus smokeless tobacco to be less harmful than other tobacco products. Early studies suggest electronic cigarettes also have fewer toxic effects than traditional cigarettes.

“The worst thing about nicotine is that it drives people to smoke.” said Niaura. “If we can move smokers to less harmful nicotine products, we can save thousands of lives.”

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