, Volume 173, Issue 1, pp 18-26

First online:

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

  • Reuven DarAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, Tel Aviv University Email author 
  • , Hanan FrenkAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, Tel Aviv UniversityThe Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yafo

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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.


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


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.


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.


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.


Nicotine Self-administration Dependence Addiction Smoking