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Addicting Kids

The effects of nicotine on the adolescent brain

Published May 6, 2024
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The tobacco industry’s predatory and insidious marketing to youth seems to be endless, as the industry continues to introduce and promote products that appeal to and attract youth.1 And nicotine is at the center of Big Tobacco’s business plan to profit off young people by addicting them and making them customers for life.2

When a poison is addictive

Especially dangerous is the appeal of products such as vapes and oral nicotine pouches to teens and young adults, who don’t fully understand the health harms. Nicotine is toxic for kids and young adults with developing brains, as they are more at risk for both the addictiveness and harm of nicotine.3 And because brain development continues until about the age of 25, nicotine can have negative impacts well into young adulthood.4 Simply put, the effects of nicotine on the brain are poisonous for young people.56

  • Nicotine changes the way connections form in the brain.7 
  • Nicotine can interfere with attention and learning.8
  • Nicotine can increase anxiety, mood swings, and irritability.91011

Effects like these are especially bad for youth, who are still learning and developing life-long habits. While some of these behaviors can be just adolescent phases, the effects of nicotine on the teenage brain can be permanent.12 Nicotine use can lead to long-term effects on the ability to make decisions and can also leave teens with an increased risk of addiction to other substances.71415 All in all, nicotine and brain development are a dangerous combo. 

Dr. Pam Ling portrait

“In addition to addiction, nicotine can increase anxiety, irritability, mood swings, and learning difficulties.”


Addictive nicotine salts

Even more concerning is the new kind of high-powered nicotine that many tobacco companies use in vapes and oral nicotine pouches called nicotine salts.

  • Tobacco companies often use nicotine salts instead of regular nicotine.16
  • Nicotine salts allow higher concentrations to be inhaled more easily, and absorbed more quickly, than regular nicotine.17
  • Whether it’s regular nicotine or nicotine salts, addiction happens fast and can lead to further substance abuse.1819

Flavored tobacco products

Flavors added to tobacco products such as mango and strawberry mask the harsh taste of tobacco and the presence of nicotine, a chemical known to be as addictive as heroin.201 

There is nothing good about nicotine. Click here for quit support for yourself or to help a young person quit vapes and other tobacco products. 

  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. E-Cigarette Use Among Youth and Young Adults: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health 2016. Accessed April 19, 2024. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538684/#ch1.s3
  2. Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. TOBACCO COMPANY QUOTES ON MARKETING TO KIDS. Accessed April 17, 2024. https://assets.tobaccofreekids.org/factsheets/0114.pdf
  3. Goriounova NA, Mansvelder HD. Short- and long-term consequences of nicotine exposure during adolescence for prefrontal cortex neuronal network function. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Med. 2012;2(12):a012120. Published 2012 Dec 1. doi:10.1101/cshperspect.a012120
  4. Office of the Surgeon General. E-cigarette Use among Youth and Young Adults: A Report of the Surgeon General. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2016. Accessed April 19, 2024. https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/sgr/e-cigarettes/pdfs/2016_sgr_entire_report_508.pdf
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nicotine: System Agent. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Updated May 12, 2011. Accessed April 10, 2024. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/ershdb/emergencyresponsecard_29750028.html
  6. Mishra A, Chaturvedi P, Datta S, Sinukumar S, Joshi P, Garg A. Harmful effects of nicotine. Indian J Med Paediatr Oncol. 2015;36(1):24-31. doi:10.4103/0971-5851.151771
  7. Yuan M, Cross SJ, Loughlin SE, Leslie FM. Nicotine and the adolescent brain. J Physiol. 2015;593(16):3397-3412. doi:10.1113/JP270492
  8. U.S. Surgeon General. Surgeon General’s Advisory on E-cigarette Use Among Youth. e-cigarettes.surgeongeneral.gov. Published 2018. Accessed April 19, 2024. https://e-cigarettes.surgeongeneral.gov/documents/surgeon-generals-advisory-on-e-cigarette-use-among-youth-2018.pdf
  9. Kutlu MG, Gould TJ. Nicotine modulation of fear memories and anxiety: Implications for learning and anxiety disorders. Biochem Pharmacol. 2015;97(4):498–511. doi:10.1016/j.bcp.2015.07.029
  10. Etter JK, Ussher M, Hughes JR. A test of proposed new tobacco withdrawal symptoms. Addiction. 2013;108(1):50-59. doi: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2012.03981.x
  11. Hughes JR. Effects of abstinence from tobacco: Valid symptoms and time course. Nicotine Tob Res. 2007;9(3):315-327. DOI: 10.1080/14622200701188919
  12. Froeliger B, Modlin LA, Kozink RV, et al. Frontoparietal attentional network activation differs between smokers and nonsmokers during affective cognition. Psychiatry Res. 2012;211(1):57–63. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2012.05.002.
  13. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Vaping devices (electronic cigarettes) drugfacts. Updated January 2020. Accessed April 22, 2024. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/vaping-devices-electronic-cigarettes
  14. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC Archive: 2016 Surgeon General's Report: E-cigarette use among youth and young adults. Updated November 12, 2019. Accessed July 3, 2024. https://archive.cdc.gov/www_cdc_gov/tobacco/sgr/e-cigarettes/index.htm
  15. Harvanko AM, Havel CM, Jacob P, Benowitz NL. Characterization of nicotine salts in 23 electronic cigarette refill liquids. Nicotine Tob. Res. 2019 doi: 10.1093/ntr/ntz232
  16. Romberg AR, Miller Lo EJ, Cuccia AF, et al. Patterns of nicotine concentrations in electronic cigarettes sold in the United States, 2013-2018. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2019;203:1-7. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2019.05.029
  17. Benowitz NL, Hukkanen J, Jacob P 3rd. Nicotine chemistry, metabolism, kinetics and biomarkers. Handb Exp Pharmacol. 2009;192:29–60
  18. Benowitz NL. Nicotine addiction. N Engl J Med. 2010;362(24):2295-2303. doi:10.1056/NEJMra0809890
  19. Leventhal A, Cho J, Barrington-Trimis J, Pang R, Schiff S, Kirkpatrick M. Sensory attributes of e-cigarette flavours and nicotine as mediators of interproduct differences in appeal among young adults. Tob Control. 2020;29(6):679-686. doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2019-055172
  20. Clodfelter R, Dutra, LM, Bradfield B, Russell S, Levine B, von Jaglinsky A. Annual results report for the California Youth Tobacco survey 2023. RTI International. Published March 2024. Accessed April 15, 2024. https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CCDPHP/DCDIC/CTCB/CDPH%20Document%20Library/ResearchandEvaluation/SurveyInstrumentsTrainingManualsAndProtocols/CYTS2023AnnualReport_FINAL.pdf
  21. Public Health Law Center. 12/6/21 – Game Over: Ending Internet Sales of Commercial Tobacco. Published December 6, 2021. Accessed April 22, 2024. https://www.publichealthlawcenter.org/commentary/211206/12/6/21-game-over-ending-internet-sales-commercial-tobacco
  22. Leas EC, Mejorado T, Harati R, et al E-commerce licensing loopholes: a case study of online shopping for tobacco products following a statewide sales restriction on flavoured tobacco in California Tobacco Control Published Online First: 07 November 2023. doi: 10.1136/tc-2023-058269
  23. Muthumalage T, Lamb T, Friedman MR, Rahman I. E-cigarette flavored pods induce inflammation, epithelial barrier dysfunction, and DNA damage in lung epithelial cells and monocytes. Sci Rep 9, 19035 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-51643-6

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