Woman smoking a cigarette
In this article, we look into whether nicotine causes cancer or not, important information about tobacco and cancer, and more.

The Answer to "Does Nicotine Cause Cancer?" Question

You’ve likely heard that nicotine causes cancer. Since it’s primarily affiliated with cigarette smoking, it’s logical to think that nicotine would be a cancerous drug. However, maybe the nicotine isn’t a cause of cancer, but merely an ingredient in tobacco products.

An Overview of Nicotine

Nicotine is a chemical in tobacco that is known to be addictive. It has a reputation for being the ingredient in cigarettes that causes product dependence in tobacco users. In lower concentrations, nicotine acts as a stimulant by stimulating the adrenal glands, which is how it becomes addictive to tobacco users.

There are a few ways nicotine gets into the bloodstream. When tobacco is smoked, nicotine gets absorbed through the air sacs in the lungs. If nicotine is sniffed or chewed, the mucous membranes of the nose or mouth absorb the nicotine.

When it enters the bloodstream, nicotine circulates through the body and travels to the brain to activate cholinergic receptors. Activating these receptors disrupts the body’s normal functioning and may cause several issues with repeated exposure.

Does Nicotine Cause Cancer?

There are thousands of chemicals in tobacco. Nicotine makes you addicted and keeps you smoking. There are harmful chemicals in cigarettes, some of which cause cancer, and some do not cause cancer. Unlike tar or polycyclic hydrocarbons, nicotine is not a carcinogen, so it’s one of the chemicals that does not directly cause cancer.

With that being said, it does not mean that nicotine is safe or without links to cancer. No drug can be completely safe, and nicotine is a drug. Research is ongoing, and scholarly articles indicate that nicotine can affect several steps in the way cancer develops in the body.

Switching to a nicotine-only product, like e-cigarettes, does not eliminate the likelihood of cancer, but compared to traditional tobacco products, e-cigarettes are a safer alternative.

Nicotine and Cancer Fast Facts

  • About 1 in 6 deaths worldwide are due to cancer. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death worldwide.
  • Tobacco use is the most important risk factor for cancer. It’s responsible for about 22% of worldwide cancer deaths. Tobacco is responsible for the majority of lung cancer cases.
  • Tobacco kills up to half of its users. It kills more than 7 million people each year. Six million are from direct tobacco use, and just under 900,000 deaths are from non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke.
  • The tobacco epidemic is one of the biggest public health threats the world faces.
  • Nicotine is a potent neurotoxin and is included in many insecticides.
  • In the U.S., healthcare expenses and lost productivity due to nicotine addiction are over $190 billion each year.
  • 90% of those who smoke started by the time they were 18 years old.
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Nicotine and Cancer Studies

While nicotine itself is not a carcinogen, here are the ways research indicates that it can contribute to cancer forming in the body:

  • Nicotine has been shown to stimulate DNA damage, and the results of two studies confirmed this. Further research suggests that nicotine may damage certain DNA that increases cancer risk.
  • In small doses, nicotine speeds up cell growth and has been shown in tumor cells in the breast, colon, and lung.
  • Research shows that nicotine has toxicological effects on cell growth, the formation of new blood vessels (which helps feed nutrients and oxygen to a cancerous tumor), and tumor malignancy (when the tumor is made up of cancer cells).
  • Large doses of nicotine have been proven poisonous to normal cells.
  • Nicotine decreases the tumor suppressor gene CHK2. This suppressor is one of the body’s natural defenses against cancer. When nicotine interferes with how CHK2 protects the body from tumor growth, nicotine affords cancerous tumors a higher chance of growing.
  • Nicotine can interfere with the effectiveness of cancer treatments. In chemotherapeutics, low concentrations of nicotine decreased the ability to slow cancer cell growth and promote cell death. In radiotherapy, nicotine use increased the survival of certain types of lung cancer cells. With this discovery, it’s expected that the use of nicotine products during cancer treatment may reduce the effects of the treatment.
  • Experimental in vitro studies on cell cultures and in vivo studies on rodents indicate that nicotine may contribute to cancer development by stimulating a number of important bodily processes.

How to Decrease Your Nicotine Consumption

You know nicotine is not safe or healthy for you, and you may have already thought about kicking your tobacco habit. Since nicotine is a drug (and highly addictive), going cold turkey may not be an effective way to go. There are ways of gradually cutting down nicotine consumption that sets you up for success.

It’s important to steadily reduce the amount of nicotine you ingest and try to stretch out moments between nicotine use until you don’t feel like you need it anymore.

Some things to try are:

  • Switching to e-cigarettes or vaping: You’ll still consume the nicotine but won’t be exposing yourself to all the other chemicals that classic tobacco contains, which can reduce your risk of cancer.
  • Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT): there are a few forms such as the patch, gum, nasal spray, inhaler, or lozenges. These methods deliver nicotine through the skin, lungs, or the mucous membrane in the mouth/nose to get the nicotine without having to smoke cigarettes or chew tobacco. If you have health conditions, these products may not be suitable.

While nicotine itself may not bring cancer into the body, it’s not an innocent chemical. It makes people addicted to tobacco use, and the carcinogenic chemicals and interference of nicotine on the body’s processes provide an opportunity for cancer to grow.

While research is ongoing, there are plenty of studies that illustrate the danger of this drug, so do what you can to eliminate it from your life.