Nicotine patches and gum may pose health hazards

March 27, 2002

Nicotine patches and gum, designed to help smoker's quit, may be hazardous to your health. The finding is reported in the March 27 print issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, a peer-reviewed publication of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society. The article was published initially March 8 on the journal's Web site. Widely believed to be safe, the patches and gum deliver nicotine to the system to quell the body's craving for it. But researchers at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., report learning, for the first time, that a breakdown product of nicotine, called nornicotine, has the ability to interfere with a broad range of chemical reactions in the body and that this interaction has the potential to trigger adverse health effects.

The study suggests that those who take medications while smoking or using nicotine patches or gum may be at greater risk for potentially adverse drug interactions. Nornicotine could modify these drugs, possibly reducing drug potency and causing side effects, according to the researchers.

While patches and gum can vary in nicotine content, those who continue to smoke while using these products subject themselves to higher health risks by getting extra nicotine, they said.

They caution that their results are preliminary and limited to laboratory observations. The compound is undergoing further testing to determine its specific effects in animals and humans, but results are not yet available, the researchers added.

The study also implies that nornicotine adds to the health dangers of smoking itself. Although nicotine has been shown to be a dangerous chemical in addition to its known addictive properties, this is the first demonstration of the chemical potential of a nicotine metabolite, they said.

"This represents another potentially adverse chemical found in tobacco that's coming from nicotine itself," said the study's lead author, Kim D. Janda, Ph.D. "We've got to be more aware of this."

The addictive effects of nicotine have been known for some time. Nornicotine, also a natural constituent of tobacco, was thought to be a minor player in addiction. While investigating ways to treat nicotine addiction, Janda and graduate student Tobin Dickerson conducted a detailed chemical analysis of the breakdown of nicotine.

They found that nornicotine is not just an innocent bystander: it catalyzes certain reactions that play major roles in processing chemicals that circulate in the body, whereas nicotine itself has no effect on these chemical reactions.

The finding was surprising because it was believed that, under conditions found in the body, only certain enzymes were able to catalyze these reactions, and nornicotine is not an enzyme. The compound, which differs from nicotine by a single carbon atom, is the first example of a metabolite that acts as a catalyst for chemical reactions, the researchers said.

The researchers demonstrated that nornicotine could interact with many important chemical reactions, including the conversion of glucose into energy. Impairment of glucose metabolism has been linked to a broad range of potentially adverse disease conditions, they said.

They also identified certain medications, including steroids and antibiotics, which are likely to interact with nornicotine. This drug interaction could trigger potentially adverse health effects in humans. Tests are currently underway to determine specific drugs that may put smokers and other users of nicotine products at increased health risks.

How the compound works in the body and its specific health effects are unknown. But its ability to catalyze reactions in a laboratory setting calls into question its safety and underscores the need to avoid tobacco products containing nicotine, the researchers said.

Those who want to quit smoking may wish to consider treatments that don't involve nicotine, he added. "Unfortunately, although some nicotine-free treatments are currently undergoing testing, to our knowledge there are no nicotine-free treatments for smoking cessation therapies currently available over-the-counter," Janda said.
This study was funded by the Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology.

-- Mark T. Sampson

The online version of the research paper cited above was initially published March 8 on the journal's Web site. Journalists can arrange access to this site by sending an e-mail to or calling the contact person for this release.

Kim D. Janda, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Chemistry at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif.

American Chemical Society

Related Smoking Articles from Brightsurf:

Smoking rates falling in adults, but stroke survivors' smoking rates remain steady
While the rate of Americans who smoke tobacco has fallen steadily over the last two decades, the rate of stroke survivors who smoke has not changed significantly.

What is your risk from smoking? Your network knows!
A new study from researchers at Penn's Annenberg School for Communication found that most people, smokers and non-smokers alike, were nowhere near accurate in their answers to questions about smoking's health effects.

Want to quit smoking? Partner up
Kicking the habit works best in pairs. That's the main message of a study presented today at EuroPrevent 2019, a scientific congress of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC).

Smoking and mortality in Asia
In this analysis of data from 20 studies conducted in China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and India with more than 1 million participants, deaths associated with smoking continued to increase among men in Asia grouped by the years in which they were born.

Predictors of successfully quitting smoking among smokers registered at the quit smoking clinic at a public hospital in northeastern Malaysia
In the current issue of Family Medicine and Community Health, Nur Izzati Mohammad et al. consider how cigarette smoking is one of the risk factors leading to noncommunicable diseases such as cardiovascular and respiratory system diseases and cancer.

Restaurant and bar smoking bans do reduce smoking, especially among the highly educated
Smoking risk drops significantly in college graduates when they live near areas that have completely banned smoking in bars and restaurants, according to a new study in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

How the UK smoking ban increased wellbeing
Married women with children reported the largest increase in well-being following the smoking bans in the UK in 2006 and 2007 but there was no comparable increase for married men with children.

Smoking study personalizes treatment
A simple blood test is allowing Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) researchers to determine which patients should be prescribed varenicline (Chantix) to stop smoking and which patients could do just as well, and avoid side effects, by using a nicotine patch.

A biophysical smoking gun
While much about Alzheimer's disease remains a mystery, scientists do know that part of the disease's progression involves a normal protein called tau, aggregating to form ropelike inclusions within brain cells that eventually strangle the neurons.

A case where smoking helped
A mutation in the hemoglobin of a young woman in Germany was found to cause her mild anemia.

Read More: Smoking News and Smoking Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to