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Addiction Behavior Cancer Glossary

How Nicotine Can Act as a Gateway Drug to Further Addiction

1 year, 1 month ago

9906  0
Posted on Oct 22, 2021, 3 p.m.

When it comes to gateway drugs, the first thing that tends to come to mind is often marijuana. This was a common talking point during the 90s and early 2000s through programs such as D.A.R.E. However, as the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana continue to expand across the United States, these organizations are starting to change their verdict

So does this change prove that gateway drugs are just a myth? Not exactly. The concept behind gateway drugs is the theory that the use of psychoactive drugs with relatively mild effects will often lead to the use and abuse of more dangerous substances. By that definition, we need to look beyond the legal battles over marijuana or even the opioid epidemic and focus on a common substance that we tend to overlook: nicotine. Let’s consider how nicotine and its addictive properties often lead to other addictions, making it an unsuspecting but dangerous gateway drug.

How Nicotine Addiction Affects the Body 

Despite its legality and prevalence in everyday life, nicotine is a highly addictive drug, with some studies suggesting that the addictive nature of nicotine is as strong as that of heroin and cocaine. When it’s consumed, dopamine is released in the brain, which acts as a reward system to encourage further use. 

The more nicotine is consumed, the more our brain is trained to repeat the same pattern. This desire to follow the reward system is why many users either increase their intake of nicotine over the years and why after decades of research findings, 480,000 deaths still occur annually due to smoking. This destructive feedback loop causes users to disregard the risks associated with nicotine use in favor of the dopamine hit they experience.

With the recent growth of e-cigarettes and vaping, nicotine addiction is no longer restricted to traditional tobacco use such as cigarettes and chewing tobacco. Additionally, it has become even more enticing for adolescents. But while many people turn to e-cigarettes as a presumably healthier alternative to the chemicals contained in traditional tobacco products, they still pose a serious threat to further addiction. This is not only because the total amount of chemicals contained in e-cigarettes is unknown, but also because the level of nicotine content is often much higher than cigarettes thanks to black market e-liquids.   

How Nicotine Functions as a Gateway Drug

According to a 2020 research report, evidence shows that nicotine fits the description of a gateway drug as much as marijuana, if not more. Additionally, since users are much more likely to access and use nicotine before even being exposed to marijuana, the report suggests that the addictive properties of nicotine are part of what leads nicotine use to expand to marijuana and other drugs. 

While many users will simply increase their intake of nicotine to satisfy their addictive cravings, others turn to more powerful substances to reach the same dopamine levels. The American Cancer Society states that the reason why nicotine use leads to further addiction is due to the fact that when the dopamine effects wear off, users can begin to experience anxiety and emotional unrest. This leads to an increase in the amount of nicotine needed to both avoid withdrawal and experience the same rush, ultimately leading to chemical dependence. 

Eventually, this can result in the need to supplement nicotine with more powerful drugs. At this point, the user is not only addicted to high levels of nicotine and exposed to an increased risk of heart disease, they are now addicted to more dangerous drugs as well. This often happens when people begin experimenting with lacing cigarettes with substances such as Xanax and other sedatives, supplementing their nicotine addiction with study drugs such as Adderall, or moving on to illegal drugs such as cocaine or heroin. As a result, this compounded addiction takes a greater toll on the body at an excessive rate.

How to Stop the Cycle

While many people who use nicotine may not transition to more powerful substances, it still poses significant health risks to the user and even to those around them. Conversely, those that are recovering from an addiction to stronger drugs may use nicotine as a replacement. In either case, nicotine addiction should be taken seriously.

Though the decision to use nicotine may originally be a desire to avoid stress, studies show that the risk of stress and mental breakdowns are actually increased for those with an ongoing nicotine addiction. This means that nicotine not only fails to combat stress but instead adds to the mental and emotional discomforts that cause many to use nicotine in the first place. Therefore, it goes without saying that avoiding nicotine use is the best and first line of defense. 

Yet, for those who are currently struggling with an addiction to nicotine, or any substance, the strategy for quitting should be comprehensive and most importantly, a concerted and supported effort. This means that the fight will not be an easy one, and it’s best done with help from those that have walked a similar path. Whether you are addicted to nicotine alone, or if you have experienced the gateway effect of nicotine that has led to further drug addiction, find the kind of help that will enable you to experience true freedom.

This article was written by Kevin Morris from the Delphi Behavioral Health Group, a dedicated family of facilities committed to offering individualized treatment for all levels of addiction working to treat it at its core to provide those suffering with the tools to start a journey of long-lasting recovery. 

As with anything you read on the internet, this article should not be construed as medical advice; please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before making any changes to your wellness routine.

Content may be edited for style and length.

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National Institute on Drug Abuse (2020, July). Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug? Retrieved from:

National Institute on Drug Abuse (2019, February, 04). Why is Nicotine So Addictive? Retrieved from:

Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). Drug Abuse and Cancer: Concerning Connections. Retrieved from:

Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). How Does Smoking (or Snorting) Xanax Work? Retrieved from:

American Cancer Society (n.d.). Why People Start Smoking and Why it’s Hard to Stop. Retrieved from:

Delphi Health Group (n.d.). Families’ Guide to Drug Addiction and Treatment Centers. Retrieved from:

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