What Is Tobacco and Nicotine?
Tobacco is a leafy plant grown around the world, including in the United States. Its leaves are dried and fermented before being put in tobacco products. Tobacco contains nicotine, an ingredient that can lead to addiction, which is why so many people who use tobacco find it difficult to quit. There are also many other potentially harmful chemicals found in tobacco or created by burning it.
Tobacco and nicotine is found in the following products:
- Smokable products: cigarettes, cigars, cigarillos, bidis.
- Vaping products: e-cigarettes, vape pens, hookah,
- Smokeless products: snus, snuff, chew, spit, dip, dissolvable tobacco
While adolescent cigarette use has generally declined, sharp increases in e-cigarette and hookah tobacco use have offset progress overall.
Tobacco and the Developing Brain
It is well documented that tobacco companies historically targeted young people in their promotion efforts based off the simple fact that if young people turned eighteen without smoking, the odds were five to one that they never would. Nearly 9 out of 10 cigarette smokers first tried smoking by age 18.
Similar to alcohol, nicotine affects the adolescent brain differently than it affects an adult’s brain. Because the brain is under construction, it is more sensitive to the potent chemicals contained in tobacco products.
It turns out that nicotine effects teens in three key ways:
- Similar to drugs like cocaine or heroin, it increases the neurotransmitter dopamine, which artificially stimulates parts of the brain that control reward and pleasure
- It increases the number of nicotine receptors in the brain which results in more nicotine cravings (and more “down” feelings without nicotine)
- It affects other neurotransmitters involved in mood regulation
There is also emerging evidence that nicotine may interfere with cognitive development (the construction of thought processes, including remembering, problem solving, and decision-making) and executive functioning (a group of skills that allow youth to manage their thoughts, actions, and emotions).
Health Effects of Tobacco
Some of the more immediate effects of tobacco products can include reduced physical fitness, poor oral health including yellow teeth and bad breath and poor skin including early wrinkling and skin damage.
Longer-term tobacco smoking can lead to lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, strokes, and emphysema. It increases the risk of heart disease, which can lead to stroke or heart attack. Smoking has also been linked to other cancers, leukemia, cataracts, and pneumonia.
Speak Now With Your Kids About Tobacco
In addition to the health risks associated with smoking, share information with your kids about the impact of nicotine on the teenage brain and addiction. Smoking is often glamorized in movies, on TV, and even in cartoons. Talk about these manipulative marketing strategies and have conversations early and often about the “myths vs. realities” of nicotine consumption in real life. Tobacco has many different health effects and talking about the short and long term effects are important. Personal examples from people they know can help kids understand.