Caffeine vs Nicotine - are they about the same?

The dangers of cigarettes are very well known - cancer of the lung, throat, mouth, pancreas, bladder, nose as well as heart attacks, strokes and autoimmune diseases. Yet, millions of people still smoke because, as the tobacco companies know, cigarettes deliver an addictive, pleasurable drug: nicotine.

There is now a way to deliver nicotine in a tobacco-free way with the electronic cigarette. In an e-cigarette, a battery powers an atomizing device which causes a liquid solution containing nicotine to be vaporized. The resulting gas containing nicotine is inhaled into the body. "Vaping" as it is called, delivers all the biochemical rewards and none of the lethal risks of tobacco.

There are very few ingredients in e liquid - in fact only three. Nicotine which is either extracted from tobacco or synthetic, food grade flavourings, and a carrier substance such as propylene glycol (PEG) or vegetable glycerin (VG). The carrier substanec and the flavourings are completely harmless - they are used in perfumes, fake cigarettes for film sets and various other purposes. It is the nicotine over which there is a question mark.

The anti-tobacco lobby is wary and Governments are marching ahead to either ban or severely curtail the availability of electronic cigarettes on health grounds. Nobody will argue that electronic cigarettes are as harmful as regular ones - that is nearly impossible. But is nicotine a health risk at all?

“Nicotine has similar qualities as caffeine,” says Ray Story, head of the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, an industry group. Let's examine that statement.

Nicotine is found in the tobacco plant. Caffeine is present naturally in tea, coffee, cocoa beans and some herbs.

Similarity 1 - insecticide properties

Caffeine acts as a natural pesticide in plants, where it paralyzes or kills insects that feed on the plant. Similarly, nicotine is an anti-herbivore chemical. However, in the typical low concentrations found in tea, e cigarettes etc. both nicotine and caffeine act as stimulants. They increase heart rate, speed up other bodily functions, and bring about temporary feelings of enhanced energy and vitality in most users. Both also improve cognitive functioning.

Similarity 2 - addictive

Both nicotine and caffeine are addictive. Nicotine withdrawal and caffeine withdrawal are both found in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Similarity 3 - Both have the potential to cause health problems in certain circumstances

Both nicotine and caffeine may lead to increased cardiovascular strain and psychological side effects like irritability and anxiety.

Nicotine is known to cause temporary nausea, dizziness and lightheadedness in first-time tobacco users.

At high enough (non-typical) doses, both nicotine and caffeine poisoning and death are possible.

Difference 1 - levels required to cause harm

Nicotine can kill in a lower dose when compared to caffeine. However, it cannot do so at the minor levels found in electronic cigarettes. As with many things, too much of a good thing is bad for you and the same is true for nicotine and caffeine.

Difference 2 - pharmacological effect on the body

Caffeine acts on adenosine receptors whereas nicotine acts on acetylcholine receptors in the brain. Caffeine mainly increases alertness while nicotine mainly causes relaxation (although increased adrenaline production by nicotine can cause hyperactivity).

You decide

So, there you have it. Most would not think twice before guzzling down a cup of coffee, consuming 3 or 4 cups a day but have a strong fear about electronic cigarettes. In fact, I have come across people that would rather smoke real cigarettes thinking that e cigarettes are worse (because of what they read in the media). Yet, caffeine and nicotine are more similar to each other than they are different.

If vaping follows the same direction as the coffee culture, perhaps one day you will be sitting in a cafe coffee in one hand, an e cigarette in the other.

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