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Addicting Kids

The effects of nicotine on the adolescent brain

Published Feb 23, 2022
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The tobacco industry’s predatory and insidious marketing tactics to youth seem to be endless, as the industry continues to introduce and promote flavored tobacco products that appeal, and are attractive, to youth. Flavors such as mango, mint, strawberry, and vanilla mask the harsh taste of tobacco and the presence of nicotine, a chemical known to be as addictive as heroin.1

Especially dangerous is the appeal of these products to teens and young adults, who don’t fully understand the health harms of these products. Nicotine is toxic for adolescents with developing brains, as they are more susceptible to both the addictiveness and harm of nicotine.2 Simply put, nicotine is brain poison for youth. Because brain development continues until about the age of 25, nicotine can have negative impacts on teens and young adults. Nicotine actually changes adolescents’ brain cell activity3 in the parts of the brain responsible for attention, learning, and memory.4 It can also worsen:

  • Anxiety5
  • Irritability7
  • Impulsivity8

These circumstances are familiar and already challenging during adolescence. While these effects would be bad for anyone, it’s especially bad for youth, who are still learning and developing habits. While some of these behaviors can be just adolescent phases, nicotine-induced changes to the brain during adolescence can be permanent.9 Nicotine’s harm can lead to long-term effects on the ability to make decisions2 and can also leave teens with an increased risk of addiction to other substances.10

There is nothing good about nicotine. To learn more about the harm of nicotine, visit FlavorsHookKids.org.

  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Health Consequences of Smoking: Nicotine Addiction A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control, Center for Health Promotion and Education, Office on Smoking and Health, 1988.
  2. 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.
  3. Benowitz NL. Nicotine addiction. N Engl J Med. 2010;362(24):2295–2303. doi:10.1056/NEJMra0809890.
  4. U.S. Surgeon General. Surgeon General’s Advisory on E-cigarette Use Among Youth. e-cigarettes.surgeongeneral.gov. 2018.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Hughes JR. Effects of abstinence from tobacco: Valid symptoms and time course. Nicotine Tob Res. 2007;9(3):315-327. DOI: 10.1080/14622200701188919.
  8. 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.
  9. Yuan M, Cross SJ, Loughlin SE, Leslie FM. Nicotine and the adolescent brain. J Physiol. 2015;593(16):3397–3412. doi:10.1113/JP270492.
  10. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Electronic Cigarettes (e-cigarettes). drugabuse.gov. Revised June 2018. Accessed April 10, 2019.

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