Tied up in a chair while a friend vapes in front of me.

Why Everything They Told You About Nicotine Addiction May Be Wrong…

And just how addictive is nicotine when removed from tobacco?

One of the most shocking scenes of Trainspotting is this:

Some people believe this scene exaggerates withdrawal symptoms (more on this later), but heroin is known to be difficult to quit.

Yet according to respected sources there’s something much harder to quit.


New York Times claiming ecigarettes are more addictive than heroin.

(After reading this, I made a point of discussing the claim with an ex-heroin addict. He had some interesting thoughts, which I’ll share with you later in the post.)

But for now, it’s worth noting that many e-cigarette users believe that e-cigarettes are less addictive than tobacco cigarettes.

Here are the results of a poll I ran back in 2011:

How addictive are ecigarettes; results of an online survey.

(Full results can be found here.)

I decided to test this myself by sending myself on a five day holiday to the Mediterranean – leaving my electronic cigarette behind!

Intriguingly, when I had no e-cigarette to hand, I felt no more than an occasional, quick-to-pass mild irritation.

You’ll probably agree with me that neither of the above provide sufficient evidence that electronic cigarettes are less addictive than smoking.

(In fact, I plan to repeat the holiday experiment to make sure the results weren’t a one-off.)

But it does make me wonder:

  • Is it just the nicotine in tobacco cigarettes that makes cigarettes addictive?
  • And just how addictive is nicotine anyway?

Fortunately, new studies and evidence are starting to suggest some answers.

Scientists are also starting to investigate nicotine addiction, with one researcher arguing:

“There is very little to no evidence for the abuse of nicotine when not delivered in a tobacco vehicle.”

SourceNicotine PolicyClick To Tweet This Quote

Evidence That Nicotine Is Not As Addictive as Smoking

Tied up in a chair while a friend vapes in front of me.
With a little help from my friends, I found it easy to resist the urge to vape.

Cravings Not As Strong and Time to First Vape Longer

Graph showing the difference in minutes between first vape and first smoke.

Intriguingly, when vapers were asked to compare E-cigarette cravings to cravings for tobacco cigarettes, only 18% believed they were as strong. This is backed up by a 2013 study by Dr Farsalinos which found that users rated e-cigarettes as less addictive than tobacco cigarettes.

The same researchers have found that electronic cigarettes wait longer before having their first vape as compared to cigarette smokers (see graph above).

Source: Dawkins et al and La Press

Easier to Quit Pure Nicotine Than Nicotine in Tobacco

Graph demonstrating the difference in quit rates between cigarette users and users of other nicotine containing products.

The success rates for quitting cigarettes is dire. (Indeed, one study found that quit smoking attempts were as low as 0.8 with pharmaceutical manufactured cessation aids).

However, the quit rate for other nicotine users is much more successful.

A study by Tonneson and Mikkelson of 69 long term users of nicotine containing products found a cessation rate of 36%. Karl Fagerstrom compared that to a success rate of quitting tobacco of 10% (as measured at 12 weeks).

However, the data needs to be treated with some caution, because:

  • this was a small study of just 69 users
  • success was measured at just 12 weeks (we know that many quitters revert to smoking after 12 weeks)

SourceFargestrom 2013

Success rates with ecigarettes do seem to back the data up – for example another small study by Professor Polosa found that over 50% of smokers given ecigs managed to stop or reduce nicotine usage in a three month period. (Polosa discussed the results with us here.)

Lab Tests on Nicotine Addiction With Rats

Rat on a white background.

The addictive properties of nicotine have not been tested on people in a lab system. But tests have been conducted on animals.

The results showed:

  • animals are more likely to administer other dependence provoking drugs such as such as amphetamine, cocaine, and heroin
  • rats respond better to nicotine with other tobacco ingredients than to pure nicotine* (see below for more detail)

Possible Causes

Is nicotine the only addictive substance in tobacco?

I’ve seen claims that other elements of tobacco can cause addiction, but only recently from a scientist.

Konstantinos Farsalinos recently told us that there may be several other chemicals in tobacco, such as alkaloids, alkanes and monoamine oxidase inhibitors, which make cigarettes more addictive.

Indeed, a 2009 study by Clemens et al, found rats wanted nicotine more when nicotine was combined with the following alkaloids from tobacco:

  • anabasine
  • anatabine
  • cotinine
  • myosmine
  • nornicotine

This evidence suggests that e-cigarettes, which do NOT contain these alkaloids, are likely to be less addictive than cigarettes.

It’s also worth noting that cigarettes have more than 5 alkaloids, and it’s entirely possible that other alkaloids make tobacco smoke even more addictive.

Source:  Clemens et al

Difference in Flavours

A Range of Premium UK E liquid FLavours
In contrast to cigarettes, eliquids currently come in a wide range of e-liquid flavours.

This is not something I personally agree with, but Dr Polosa told me that the flavour of e-cigarettes may have something to do with them being less addictive:

Tobacco companies have accumulated a big deal of expertise in crafting palatable tobacco aromas over the years and they know far too well that a good product requires the right balance of several ingredients…

SourceFive Scientists Present the Case for ECigarettes

However, in contrast to a limited number of tobacco flavours in e-cigarettes, there is a huge range of e-liquid flavours.

What’s more, many vapers eventually switch to non-tobacco flavours like blueberry and bubblegum, flavours they can’t get in cigarettes. So that’s not an argument I buy!

Electronic Cigarettes Deliver Less Nicotine Than Cigarettes

Another reason that you may find your e-cigarette is less addictive than smoking is that e-cigs deliver less nicotine than tobacco cigarettes.

In fact in one study, Bullen et al found that a 16 mg electronic cigarette only delivered 40% of that quantity of nicotine. (That’s something that experience bears out, and I usually recommend that new e-cigarette users go one strength above what they use in tobacco cigarettes.)

Source: Bullen quoted on ECigarette Research

Chris Price of ECigarette Politics agrees with, pointing out that professional chemists on ECigaretteForum estimate that only about 50% of the nicotine in e-liquid is actually contained in e-cigarette vapour.

Should E-Cigarettes Be More Addictive?

3d person stands next to a large red question mark.

Now, if you are an e-cigarette user you might be rejoicing, especially considering the often-made but unproven claim that e-cigarettes are more addictive than cigarettes.

But Dr J F Etter believes that e-cigarettes need to be more addictive in order to get more smokers off cigarettes. 

And in our 2014 predictions post, he argued that the first manufacturer to produce an ecigarette that would deliver nicotine faster to the brain would take the market.

What do you think?

Thoughts from An Ex-Heroin Addict

I mentioned earlier I spoke to a friend who is an ex-heroin addict and a smoker. He told me:

The argument that nicotine is more addictive than heroin is complete bullshit. People say that because nicotine is always in your face and it’s readily available, but heroin withdrawal has a whole physical aspect to it which doesn’t exist with nicotine. 

The hallucination aspect of the Trainspotting may be an exaggeration, but if anything the withdrawal symptoms are a lot worse than shown in the video because they last longer, include cold sweats and can be physically painful.

Read on!

How Much Eliquid Would It Take to Kill You? Essential Information For All Vapers
Nicotine in Electronic Cigarettes: 10 Facts All Users Need to Know
An Interview with Nicotine Expert Dr Jacques Houezeq
What is Nicotine Doing To Your Body?

* Nicotine with alkaloids, which represents tobacco smoke, was much more likely to be self administered in comparison to nicotine without alkaloids, which would more closely represent e-cigarette vapour.

If you found this post of value, I’d really appreciate it if you shared it using one of the share buttons below.

Thank you 🙂


20 thoughts on “Why Everything They Told You About Nicotine Addiction May Be Wrong…”

  1. I agree with Etter that the most efficient ecig, in terms of attracting smokers, will be one that contains the other active tobacco alkaloids. We already have this in the form of WTA refills, for which there are two manufacturers currently. An alternative is ecigs + Snus. This does raise other issues, although this approach is preferable to continuation of cigarette smoking if the health issues are a concern. Since there is a percentage of smokers who cannot transfer without difficulty to a nicotine-only solution, and this may be a significant number, it is an important issue.

    Regarding the transfer of nicotine from e-liquid into the vapour, the anecdotal evidence has been available for some years that this has an average efficiency of around 50%, as you say. That has now been confirmed by the Goniewicz series of lab tests, which confirmed this average figure. The hardware appears to have a major effect on this as the efficiency ranges from about 10% to 80%, with a mean of around 50% (confirming the ECF chemists’ work from all those years ago). See:
    ‘Goniewicz 1’:
    ‘Goniewicz 2’:

    This appears to indicate that a well-funded vendor might optimally approach the problem by developing the most efficient transfer, and this would confer a marketing advantage.


    1. I think the specific quote which I mentioned was one where Etter spoke about nicotine delivery, although he may have mentioned alkaloids elsewhere.

      From a political point of view, I think it might be very difficult to introduce tobacco alkaloids into eliquid. I’m also not sure that consumers would like it, either.

      1. WTA e-liquids are an accepted part of the ecig scene in the USA, so we could look at how this has played out there. The basic argument is: “If some people cannot switch to an ecig and revert to smoking, then if they are supplied with the additional alkaloids from tobacco and can then successfully transition, what is the problem?” There are pros and cons (I have examined these in detail in articles on ECF). It’s basically whether you want to see any success rate for ecigs boosted by another 10 or 20%, and if that has any real consequences.

        1. How has the reaction been so far? I haven’t seen any mention of it, so I assume this has just passed the prohibitionists by so far.

          1. In general, WTAs are under the radar, both for vapers and the tobacco control industry. It’s something the TCI will get around to and attempt to use to their advantage, in the same way they finally got around to the ‘ecigs are being used for illicit drugs’ drama. Essentially, WTAs are a way to improve the conversion rate by making ecigs work better for some people: a proportion of those who would otherwise fail and revert to smoking. As such, it will be used as an attack vector by the TCI at some point (just like flavours or anything else). The reality is that it does present some issues but they are miniscule compared to the continuation of smoking.

            1. Reposting this comment here, was trying to leave it on my mobile phone yesterday and it didn’t appear as a reply.

              I am still trying to get my head around the practicality and ethics of adding tobacco alkaloids. Many vapers deliberately lower the strength of the nicotine they use over time in an attempt to completely reduce their addiction to nicotine. How would they feel about ecigs being made more addictive? The answer, from an ethical point of view, would be to give customers option of ejuice with tobacco alkaloid, but this might prove difficult from a practical point of view except for the very largest companies.

              1. This is an issue that will be a hot topic one day. At present, for those smokers who fail to switch due to continuing cravings, if they are well-mentored then instead of failing and reverting to smoking they will be advised to add WTA e-liquids or Snus.

                The pros and cons of this are ethically and practically of no relevance when compared to a return to smoking. Snus doesn’t kill anyone in statistically-detectable quantity, and neither should WTAs. But up to 50% of continuing smokers may die as a result, and according to ASH, for every fatality there are 20 more sick. A harmless dependence is below invisible on this scale.

  2. Personally I think the government is worried about tax, they really want to load ecigs with as much tax as there is on cigaettes, they get anawful lot of tax from them, they only get the VAT on Ecigs
    They have dragged their heels with any esting, the same as the EU
    They will do all their testing, come up with some loopy idea, then slap a huge tax on them
    Ecigs are less harmfull and an awful lot cheaper than cigarettes, they can see a cash cow coming and they want a very large slice of it

    They tax everyone from the day they start work until the day they die, they load tax on as much as possible on as many things as they can get away with, ecigs are just another target for tax, and they arent going to let this get away
    But with ecigs, you will live longer, hence you will pay more tax
    How many deaths are down to smoking ?
    How many deaths are due tro ecigs ?
    I think the figures speak for them self
    Just show me a chancellor that doesnt look on YOU as a cash cow

    1. “But with ecigs, you will live longer, hence you will pay more tax..”

      I’m not so sure. Most smokers die after they retire, so they will have paid into the tax system all their lives but do not continue to take pensions for decades. Plus, the cost of treating smoking diseases is a fraction of treating old age diseases.

      You might be intersted in this article, which shows that at least some MEPs are worried about tax: https://www.ecigarettedirect.co.uk/ashtray-blog/2013/05/e-cigarettes-tobacco-tax.html

  3. Everyone dies when they retire, they are old, it happens to every old person, even young people

    The jury is out on deaths by ecigs, no one can say with any certainty, because they may have used ordinary cigarettes in the past

    Ecigs havent been around as long as ordiarty cigarettes

    When I retired I never waited decades before I grabbed my pension as soon as I was able to, I used to smoke, I also ran marathons, I use an ecig now, only because they are cheaper than a real cigarette and I can use them any where, I used mine at Everest base camp
    I really dont care for a chemistry lesson about ecigs, they work for me, I dont need to know how to make a pint, I just drink it, when I started smoking I didnt need to know what was in it or how it was made (but now I have seen how its harvested and they are made)

    Not really interested in what MP’s have to think about it either,

    Regarding tax, just wait and see, I have stated my personal opinion, its my opinion and everyone is entitled to it

    Cigarettes worked for me, now ecigs work for me, nothing more to say about the subject

    Give it time you will pay as much tax as you do on ordinary cigarettes, possible even more

  4. Been a smoker 20+ years. A passionate and highly addicted one. Then switched to electronics and forgot about stinkies for many reasons vapers know about. One of them being that once switched to nicotine in vape instead of tobacco smoke, the whole addiction thing is much easier to handle. And “much easier” is an understatement.

    I don’t deny there is still addiction, there is. But it’s nowhere near the former one.

    We all know there are times when one can’t get nicotine, restaurants, airplanes, around children… And those few hours can be quite nasty. In my smoking days, I dreaded movies longer than regular 90 minutes. Three hours in theater were a bloody hell no matter how good the movie was. Being around kids for more than hour was an ordeal.

    Not with an e-cig. Sure, after a while there is a message in the system saying “time for a nic hit”, but it comes much later, it’s not nearly strong and aggressive as before and, best of all, it is stubborn so when I say “not now, we’re having fun here” it politely withdraws and wait for its turn.

    Sure, there is also psychological aspect of addiction, and I admit I hardly leave the house without my gear with me, not even for ten minutes. Then minutes that I don’t plan to have a single vape. But that’s not about chemical addiction.

    1. Thank you for the comment, Dandellion. I think a lot of us vapers feel that ecig aren’t as addictive as cigarettes, which makes it annoying when there unproven claims that they are 1. More addictive than cigarettes 2. A gateway to smoking! I’ve personally noticed that if I have my ecig with me I want to vape, but if I know I can’t have it then the urge to vape wanes.

      1. I quite agree with Dandellion – I too quit the smokes after 35 years+, and have found the nicotine addiction is still there, but much less aggressive than before.
        I started on 18mg juice and am now down to 19mg or less the majority of the time. I vape three or four puffs every 15 minutes or so, and can go much longer during the day without a vape than I ever could when I was smoking.
        I regularly go 3 hours plus without a chance for a vape (I’m a teacher), and it now doesn’t bother me at all; before, I would have been climbing the wall for a quick fag!
        The craving is different too; it’s nicer, more sophisticated and less persuasive than a tobacco one, and much more easily subdued. I now vape because I like the ‘hand-to-mouth’ thing, and the gentle buzz (I have never had a headrush like I used to get when on the rollies), and the vapour out of my mouth.
        All in all, I am delighted that I changed lifestyle, and was fascinated by your article, as so much of what you said made sense.
        Thanks for posting, and I hope my comments make some sort of sense!

          1. Thanks for the comment Andy, I think it illustrates something we have been discussing further up on the comment about adding tobacco alkaloids to eliquid (which wouldn’t be helpful for people like you who are successfully reducing nicotine strength in eliquid.)

  5. If nicotine is as addictive as they say then how is it possible that so many Vapers can gradually lower their nicotine intake? I started at 24mg… Now at 12mg. I plan on reducing more.

    1. Because whether you vape 24mg or 3mg, you’re still filling your brain’s craving for the specific amount of nicotine it feels happy with, you just use more drags of your vape to get there if the dose is smaller. If you’re hungry for a sandwich it doesn’t matter how many bites it takes to eat it.

  6. I am a cancer survivor and vape ecigs in numerous flavors, coffee,candy corn,peach tobacco,blueberry cheesecake, etc. I have not smoked cigs in 5 months and I will never again. I have tried Chantix,zyban,nicorette patches and gum, and hypnotherapy to no avail and suicidal thoughts on Chantix. I ran a half marathon vaping 18 mg. Nicotine peach tobacco the entire way. I am a freelance writer in site need of employment or book deal. The admittance of Marlboros Mark ten ecig should say something about the upcoming downfall of tobacco as a nicotine delivery system. Harm reduction people,harm reduction. Do your homework on tobaccos added chemicals and look and the many carcinogenic properties of such. Join the fight against tobacco. I never said I wanted to quit nicotine, just smoking cigarettes. The killer is now expose and the train will roll forward. Deal with it big pharma,big tobacco, and those behind population reduction.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to Top