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Nicotine, An In-Depth Look

Since vaping generally involves nicotine, it’s important to understand what nicotine is, its dangers and its effects. Nicotine is an ingredient found in most e-liquid formulations, but since it’s associated with cigarettes it has a bad reputation, which is unmerited since the vast harms wrought by cigarettes have nothing to do with the nicotine they contain.

Nicotine’s presence in tobacco has caused it to be vilified, but scientific fact doesn’t actually prove nicotine is all that harmful. Nicotine, however, is what keeps people hooked on cigarettes, which are the largest preventable cause of death in the world. As the famous quote goes: “People smoke for nicotine but they die from the tar.”

It’s Addictive

Nicotine is one of the most well-known (legal) recreational drugs on the market. Its effects are similar to caffeine, another well-known and legal drug that people often don't even recognize is a drug even though it is. That is to say, nicotine, like caffeine, is a widely used mild stimulant typically consumed in small doses that produces a relatively short-term effect.

There is, however, a critical difference between nicotine and caffeine. One of most important facts to know about nicotine is that it's a highly addictive substance and is considered one of the hardest habits to break. This is why it's a (really) bad idea to start vaping if you're not already a smoker. There's no need, after all, to risk exposing yourself to a serious addiction in exchange for little benefit aside from the mild jolt a cup of coffee could just as easily deliver.

But if you’re already a smoker, you know full well how addictive nicotine is and so you're probably turning to vaping as an alternate method of getting your fix.

How Addiction Works

Nicotine, it is fair to say, works in insidious ways. It achieves its pleasurable effect by stimulating brain receptors that cause the release of dopamine (a chemical your body naturally produces that's associated with pleasure). Your body responds by reducing the sensitivity of its dopamine receptors, requiring a bigger "hit" to remain satiated.

This effect is particularly pronounced in brains that haven't fully developed into adulthood. Youth who are first exposed to nicotine in their teen years are susceptible to having their brains effectively rewired to associate nicotine's dopamine release with pleasure, and thus they're the most susceptible to addiction. This is why more than 90 percent of long-term smokers first light up before they're 21. By age 25, the brain has fully matured and is much less likely to be receptive to nicotine's alteration of dopamine delivery, rendering the habit largely smelly and useless, not to mention expensive. (This is why you barely ever meet anyone who picked up smoking later in life.)

Because the brain of a nicotine user essentially becomes hard-wired to associate nicotine use with happiness itself, the resulting addiction is one of the toughest to break. Quitting "cold turkey" can lead to harsh withdrawal symptoms. Taking away what's effectively your "happy drug" can lead to cravings, irritability, depression, a generally foul attitude, and in some extreme cases, physical afflictions including shakiness, sweating and insomnia.

For this reason, nicotine replacement therapies such as patches, gum, and prescription medications are endorsed as medical quit aids. The aim is to direct the nicotine user away from the harmful byproduct of their addiction (cigarette smoke and its thousands of toxins) while allowing them to wean off the nicotine that's caused the user to become addicted to the harmful delivery device of cigarettes.

It is very important to take note here that vaping is not medically recognized in the United States as a smoking cessation tool. Studies on the efficacy of vaping as a smoking replacement have been mixed, with some indicating that smokers who try vaping are no more likely to quit than those who don't. Other studies, along with tens of thousands of anecdotal accounts from smokers who were motivated to quit, indicate that e-cigs can be a useful nicotine substitute on their journey. While vaping has been endorsed as a smoking cessation therapy by British governmental medical authorities, it has not undergone the necessary studies to be marketed as such in the US.

Health Risks of Nicotine

Nicotine dependence has a host of adverse side effects in addition to those we've already covered on the developing adolescent brain. Consumption of nicotine increases blood pressure, constricting blood vessels while ramping up heart rate. Over the long term, this can lead to reduced elasticity of blood vessels, increasing the risk of stroke or blood clots.

Excessive nicotine use can also have gastrointestinal effects, including nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, indigestion and heartburn. Nicotine users can also experience an increased level of insulin resistance, leading to a higher incidence of diabetes.

One assertion that is not true, however, is that nicotine causes cancer. This is a common misconception because cigarette smoke, which contains nicotine, is cancerous. However, it’s the myriad other chemicals found in smoldering tobacco, not the nicotine, that actually causes the cancer.

Mental Effects of Nicotine

Nicotine acts as a mild stimulant, with a chemical makeup similar to caffeine. It's unique, however, in that depending on the mood of the user, it can have either a stimulating or a calming effect. Along the same lines, nicotine has also been shown to lead to a state of raised alertness and euphoria, while also resulting in a calmer, clearer state of mind for the user. Studies have shown that nicotine also appears to improve memory and concentration, while increasing the levels of beta-endorphin that reduces anxiety.

When you vape, the first thing you’ll notice are the short-term effects. Since nicotine is a stimulant, it’ll likely create a pleasurable feeling, as well as an increased heart rate and an improved ability to pay attention and remember things. Nicotine, though, also has a biphasic effect. This means that if you consume a little bit, it acts as a stimulant; but if you consume a greater amount, it’ll chill you out.

When vaping, if you want a quick kick, take short, shallow hits. If you want to feel more relaxed, take longer, heavier hits.

All of these effects occur when the nicotine chemical grabs onto neurotransmitters in your brain. These are like messengers, which, when activated, tell your brain to release certain compounds, mainly dopamine, which causes the release of several pleasure hormones. Dopamine is a natural compound that encourages you to act to get those pleasure rewards. (Interestingly, the very same chemical also helps you remember negative experiences so that the next time you avoid whatever caused them.)

Controlling Nicotine Intake

The amount of nicotine you get through vapor can be controlled, unlike cigarettes, because e-liquid comes in various nicotine strengths whereas cigarettes do not. One of the advantages to vaping is the ability to control how much nicotine you vape.

Reducing nicotine intake is always a good goal for vapers, and, as we’ve said, if you were never a smoker before vaping, you should avoid nicotine-containing liquids altogether.

We hope this explanation helps demystify some of the claims being made about nicotine as it relates to vaping, helping every vaper on their path to a nicotine-free (or reduced-nicotine) future.

Since nicotine is an essential part of the vapor experience, figuring out the right amount when switching from combustible cigarettes to vaping is a key factor in success or failure.

Household Safety

Proper storage of nicotine products is essential not only for their longevity, but for safety. This is particularly true in a house with pets or children.

The dose at which nicotine can become toxic or even deadly is measured in the dozens of milligrams, meaning that just a small amount of e-liquid could be harmful if swallowed or absorbed into the skin.

For that reason, e-liquids (and spare tanks filled with liquid) should always be kept in a secure location, well out off the reach of children who might mistake the sweet-smelling substance for a treat. To ensure your liquids last as long as possible without spoiling, it's best to keep them tucked away in a dark, cool space anyway.


The effects of nicotine, when separated from the deadly aspects of combustible tobacco, are thought to be relatively benign. That said, nicotine is still widely regarded as one of the world's most addictive substances, so if you're not already using it there's no good reason to start. For nicotine users seeking an alternative to smoking, however, we believe vaping is a choice worth exploring.

Check out Breazy’s vast library of vaping resources here.