, Volume 173, Issue 1-2, pp 18-26
Date: 05 Mar 2004

Do smokers self-administer pure nicotine? A review of the evidence

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Abstract

Rationale

Nicotine is almost universally believed to be the primary agent motivating tobacco smoking and the main impediment to cessation. A principal argument in support of the presumed reinforcing properties of nicotine is that smokers self-administer pure nicotine. However, the evidence for nicotine self-administration in smokers has not been critically examined.

Objectives

To review and examine the empirical basis for the assertion that smokers self-administer pure nicotine.

Methods

We reviewed all the studies we were able to locate that are cited as demonstrating self-administration of nicotine, isolated from tobacco, in normal smokers and non-smokers. These studies investigated self-administration of intravenous nicotine, nicotine gum and nicotine spray. Using the authors’ own criteria, we examined whether these studies in fact demonstrate nicotine-self administration.

Results

None of the studies we reviewed demonstrated nicotine self-administration in smokers. Both smokers and non-smokers failed to show preference for nicotine over placebo in any of these studies, including in a series of six reports of overnight abstinent smokers having access to nicotine nasal spray, a rapidly absorbed form of nicotine.

Conclusions

The common statement that smokers self-administer pure nicotine lacks empirical support. Smokers in fact do not administer pure nicotine in any of the forms studied to date, even when abstinent and presumably nicotine-deprived. This conclusion necessitates a critical re-examination of the nicotine addiction thesis.

The authors have received fees for consulting to lawyers working with tobacco companies. However, the work associated with this review was not supported by any non-university funds.