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Nicotine: Gateway Drug

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According to a new study, nicotine should be looked at as a pretty powerful gateway drug, even possibly leading users to cocaine addiction. Researchers are now wondering about the implications for treatment for cocaine addicts who also smoke, and will be exploring what other substances may also be gateway drugs.

Dangers of Nicotine

Nicotine is one of the most commonly used drugs, and it is very addictive. In 2009, nearly 70 million Americans age 12 and older had used a tobacco product at least once in the month prior to being surveyed. Cigarette smoking increases the risk for lung cancer, emphysema, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory illness. Cigarette smoking accounts for 90% of lung cancer cases in the U.S., and almost 50,000 deaths per year can be attributed to secondhand smoke. (1) But according to this week’s study, there may be other reasons to stay away from nicotine.

Nicotine and Cocaine

The study was done at New York’s Columbia University. Researchers treated mice with nicotine and then exposed them to cocaine. The mice who got the nicotine beforehand showed more characteristics of addiction than those who weren’t exposed to nicotine first. Researchers have tried to connect this study to surveys done on humans in the past. In a previous study, researchers found that 81% of young people who used cocaine did so at the same time they were also actively smoking tobacco. (2)

Researchers are now wondering what this new information means for treating cocaine patients. First of all, there would be a great benefit to treating a nicotine addiction as well as cocaine addiction, rather than allowing the person to continue to smoke while detoxing from cocaine.

Gateway Drugs

Past studies were unable to link substances like nicotine, alcohol, and marijuana to an increased vulnerability to use illicit drugs. Now researchers want to find out if alcohol and marijuana could also enhance the effects of cocaine on the brain. The theory of gateway drugs has been disputed in great detail, but if the mouse study holds true for humans, there could definitely be substances that help exaggerate the brain’s response to cocaine.

“Now that we have a mouse model of the actions of nicotine as a gateway drug this will allow us to explore the molecular mechanisms by which alcohol and marijuana might act as gateway drugs,” said Eric Kandel, M.D., of Columbia University Medical Center and senior author of the study. “In particular, we would be interested in knowing if there is a single, common mechanism for all gateway drugs or if each drug utilizes a distinct mechanism.” (3)

In short, there must be more research on the topic to prove any connection between possible gateway drugs and illicit drugs in humans. But it is a real possibility that certain substances biologically increase vulnerability to other drugs.


(1) Tobacco/Nicotine

(2) Nicotine primes the brain to embrace cocaine, study says

(3) NIH study examines nicotine as a gateway drug

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Bethany Winkel

This article was written by Bethany Winkel

Joining the TSN online family in 2008, Bethany has used her skills as a writer to reach many people through her blog. Always eager to be a help to others, she is pleased to see her writing become a source of information, encouragement, and hope for those impacted by substance abuse. Bethany is happy to be involved with an organization that is making a difference in the lives of others. Bethany has also held the position of development coordinator for a nonprofit youth center for the past 6 years. With her expertise in grant writing, Bethany has raised over $1 million for programming that benefits at-risk youth. The happy mother of 4 young children, Bethany juggles her writing from home with spending time with her family. If her hours of research for her TSN blog articles have taught her one thing, it is to be an involved parent who takes time to listen to her kids.