It’s a misconception that cigarettes labeled as “lights” or “milds” are somehow safer than other cigarettes. As a popular joke about those products goes, there’s no such thing as light or mild cancer! Light or mild in describing cigarettes actually refers to the taste of the tobacco, not in the concentration of the nicotine within the tobacco.
In 2009, the U.S. Senate passed a law stating that the Food and Drug Administration had the authority to regulate all tobacco products. As part of this legislation, the FDA also cracked down on the tobacco industry’s marketing efforts, and tobacco companies can no longer refer to cigarettes as “mild” or “light,” largely because of the misconception that labeling created, which suggested that such cigarettes were less dangerous.
Although there is no safe level of nicotine, it appears that the damage from nicotine consumption adds up over time. The more cigarettes that you smoke and the longer that you’re a smoker, the more affected you will be by nicotine.
The real danger in nicotine is in the effects it has on your health, especially in large amounts and over time. You also need to take your personal health history into consideration when evaluating the risks of nicotine. If you are already diabetic or have a family history of diabetes, smoking is an especially dangerous habit to take up. Nicotine raises your blood sugar, which can make it much harder to control your diabetes if you’re already diabetic, or it can be the factor that tips the balance between being pre-diabetic and developing full blown diabetes. When you’re diabetic, poor blood sugar control significantly increases your other risks from the disease, including heart attacks and stroke.
Nicotine also raises your blood pressure, which further increases your risk of having a heart attack or stroke. The stimulant effect that nicotine gives you is responsible for that slight “buzz” feeling, which can be pleasurable in the sense of boosting your energy, but it also causes your heart to beat harder and faster. When your heart beats harder and faster on an everyday basis, eventually it causes your blood pressure to go up. High blood pressure isn’t just a harmless state, either: it’s a sign that your heart has to work too hard just to perform the daily functions it needs to do to keep you alive.
In this case, it’s not the smoking that causes the changes to your blood sugar and blood pressure, it’s the nicotine itself. If you were to switch to using a nicotine patch or smokeless tobacco (also called chew or dip) instead, for example, you would still have the same harmful effects from the nicotine.
Nicotine has bad effects on the health of your lungs, too, although most of this risk comes from the act of smoking rather than from nicotine itself. Smoking is one of the worst things you can do for your lungs, especially if you have health conditions like asthma or allergies that already compromise your lung health.
Smoking causes your airways to swell up and tighten, which makes it harder for air to get through your lungs. Cold weather has a similar effect on your lungs, which you may have noticed if you go outside to have a cigarette during the winter. The double effects of nicotine and cold weather can make you feel like you can’t breathe or get enough air.
Over time, these risks to your lungs can add up to developing serious chronic lung diseases, including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), emphysema, and even lung cancer.
Nicotine is so powerfully psychologically and physically addictive that you’re always thinking about when you can have your next cigarette, even if you just had one. This causes a lot of anxiety for smokers! It’s really distracting to be in an unfamiliar or new situation where you know that you cannot maintain your normal smoking habits. For example, if you have jury duty or have to go to a family member’s house who doesn’t allow smoking, you’ll probably find that you can’t stop thinking about when you can have a cigarette again. Stress and smoking seems to be a vicious cycle, because most smokers say that it relieves their stress to have a cigarette, but smoking another one keeps the cycle in motion.
Although there are plenty of negative effects associated with nicotine as mentioned above, the substance does have some positive effects, too. Pharmaceutical researchers are currently studying possible uses for nicotine in improving cognitive function and memory in seniors with Alzheimer’s disease and in people with schizophrenia. Nicotine may also be beneficial in preventing Parkinson’s disease.
Other researchers at Stanford University made the surprising discovery that nicotine actually helps the body to grow new blood vessels. Although this is a double-edged sword because smoking also damages blood vessels, researchers are considering how nicotine could be used in a positive manner to promote the growth of new blood vessels as well.
Many patients with ulcerative colitis have also found relief from their condition with the use of nicotine patches, and for a while, nicotine patches were prescribed off label for this purpose.
Nicotine also helps to improve mood, which can help people who have mood disorders like depression and anxiety.
On the whole, nicotine seems to have more negative effects than positive ones. However, it appears that many of the risks of nicotine are greatest in those who smoke because the accompanying damaging effects of smoking are substantial contributing factors.
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