Tobacco and areca nut are the most widely used substances containing drugs from this class. Although most Americans think of tobacco’s nicotine as a recreational drug, it has had agricultural functions as a pesticide and for ridding farm animals of worms. Nicotine is readily absorbed through the skin and causes “green tobacco sickness” among farmworkers who handle leaves, a poisoning sometimes severe enough to require hospitalization. The tobacco plant has been known to kill livestock that eat it. Humans have also been poisoned when attempting to use tobacco as food, such as by boiling greens.
Tobacco apparently originated in the Americas, where native peoples did not seem to regard it as a recreational substance. Their uses were spiritual and medical. Even in the twentieth century some native peoples used tobacco to treat conditions ranging from chills to infections and snake bites. When Europeans discovered tobacco in the New World, they removed it from the cultural context in which its primary uses had been medical and spiritual. Used without those restrictions, hazards became obvious soon enough. Lacking the shared social values that had long limited tobacco’s use in the New World, Europeans attempted to control the substance by law. Property of cultivators and traffickers became subject to forfeiture in Hungary and Russia and even Japan. In the 1600s smoking was condemned by the pope and by King James of England, and smokers were condemned to death in Turkey, Iran, Russia, and some German states. Legal harshness, however, was unable to substitute for the social values that had limited consumption in lands where tobacco originated.
We often measure drug addiction by the amount of drug used, assuming that the more a person uses, the stronger the drug’s hold. Researchers have found this assumption to be incorrect for nicotine. Measured by strength of dependence symptoms, a person who smokes more than a half pack of tobacco cigarettes each day may be no more addicted than a person who smokes just
half a pack, meaning the lighter smoker may have just as much trouble quitting as the heavier smoker.
Among cigarette users, the amount of smoking depends in part on the tobacco’s nicotine content, but other factors are also involved. During the 1990s in the United States female smokers tended to have a higher degree of tobacco addiction than male smokers did (measured not in number of cigarettes smoked but in strength of addiction symptoms such as tolerance, withdrawal, and difficulty in reducing consumption). Whites had stronger levels of addiction than did members of other races. Adolescents tended to smoke fewer cigarettes than middle-aged persons, but despite adolescents’ lower usage, their addiction symptoms were just as strong as those found in heaviersmoking middle-aged persons. Older smokers were the least addicted even though they were the heaviest users. Researchers are unsure whether such differences are caused by biology or culture or a combination.
In the United States tobacco smoking is associated with being an adult, and adolescents may take up the practice partly as a symbol of their passage into adulthood. Role models are also important; a prominent person who smokes may inspire admirers to do so. Celebrity endorsements of cigarettes were once routine in advertising, but the admired person can also be a personal acquaintance. A survey in Spain revealed that the role model of teachers who smoke seems to be a major factor in starting the habit among students there.
The popularity of smoking among American teenagers declined in the 1970s and 1980s but increased in the 1990s. A cancer statistics authority reported that by 1997 over 33% of American high schoolers were using cigarettes. A study of Taiwanese high school students published in 1999 found a much lower usage rate, more like 10%. In 1999 a survey of over 14,000 young adult American college students found about 33% using some sort of tobacco product, mostly cigarettes. The latest statistics can be found through the “Sources for More Information” at the end of this book.
For information about specific pyridine alkaloids class stimulants, see alphabetical listings for: areca nut and nicotine.