The addictive nature of traditional tobacco cigarettes is all too painfully obvious for people switching to e-cigs. So, when thinking of substitutes for smoking, it’s important to know what the score is – are electronic cigarettes addictive? Well, to answer that question, you really need to take a step back and have a think about what it meant by addiction, and why the tobacco cigarettes smoked these days are so addictive. There are several aspects of tobacco smoking that are addictive.
Firstly there is a very simple physical addiction to nicotine. This is the main active ingredient in tobacco, and it looks to your brain like a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. This substance enhances feelings of relaxation and ‘de-stressing’. When the brain is hit by repeated doses of nicotine, it thinks its acetylcholine, and responds to reduce the effect of all this extra acetylcholine floating about – the brain is physically altered. If you take the nicotine away, the brain is left floundering, because it’s changed its structure – and you get hit by big withdrawal symptoms.
Are electronic cigarettes addictive in this sense – well yes they are, but at a reduced level. There is some recent research which shows that the nicotine levels in the vapour are less effectively absorbed than from smoke.
Secondly, nicotine has pleasurable effects, as well as calming ones – it stimulates production of dopamine, the brains ‘pleasure’ drug. Dopamine acts to reward us for things that we should do. Not only that, but when smoked, compounds inhaled in the smoke, called ‘MOA inhibitors’, act to hold back an enzyme called MOA. That is important in mopping up excess dopamine. So smoking not only creates more dopamine, it slows down the brain’s ability to clear it away. That makes smoking chemically addictive.
Are electronic cigarettes addictive properties enhanced by MOA inhibition? The answer here is no. Tests have shown that e-cig vapour does not contain any MOA inhibitors, so doesn’t have this additional addictive effect, seen with smoking tobacco.
Finally smoking is socially and psychologically addictive – you smoke in certain social situations, or together with other drugs – drinking wine, or coffee, for instance. The brain learns to associate the rewards of nicotine uptake with these other activities and drugs. So when you’re in the pub with your friends, the craving for a cigarette is partly down to your brain remembering the pleasure of smoking, and poking you in the ribs to get on with it. It also remembers the smell, feel and actions associated with smoking, hence the itchy finger syndrome, where you feel the need to light up.
The physical actions of smoking also become a social prop in themselves – you can use a cigarette as part of your conversation and interaction with others in a way that very few other physical acts can reproduce. There is a mild social conditioning to expect to be able to use those social props – this reinforces the physical and chemical addictions of smoking.
Are electronic cigarettes addictive is this social sense – once again yes, but that is the great advantage of e-cigs. Users don’t have to worry about giving up the pleasurable social and psychological associations, which themselves are not harmful.
So when considering ‘Are electronic cigarettes addictive?’ it can be seen that e-cigs offer a reduced level of addiction to nicotine, without much of the difficulties that switching to other smoking alternatives have – so making them a great substitute for tobacco smoking.