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Free Content Role of nicotine pharmacokinetics in nicotine addiction and nicotine replacement therapy: a review

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Smoking is a complex behaviour involving both pharmacological and psychological components. Nicotine is the main alkaloid found in tobacco, and is responsible for its addictive potential. Nicotine-positive effects on mood and cognition are strong reinforcements for smokers that contribute to their addiction, and cigarette smoking is particularly addictive because inhaled nicotine is absorbed through the pulmonary venous rather than the systemic venous system, and thus reaches the brain in 10–20 seconds. As the likelihood that a substance will be abused depends on the time between administration and central reinforcement, tobacco smoking can easily become addictive. Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) is available in different forms (gum, transdermal patch, nasal spray, inhaler, sublingual tablet and lozenge), and has been shown to relieve withdrawal symptoms and to double abstinence rates compared to placebo. Most NRT forms deliver nicotine more slowly than smoking, and the increase in nicotine blood levels is more gradual. Compared to tobacco smoking or even tobacco chewing, few positive (reinforcing) effects are obtained from NRT use. Nasal spray provides faster withdrawal relief than other NRT, but compared to smoking absorption is slower and nicotine blood levels obtained are lower than with smoking. These differences in pharmacokinetic profiles compared with smoking may explain that some smokers still have difficulties quitting smoking even when using NRT (apart from psychological and/or social factors). Combination therapy (e.g., patch+gum, patch+inhaler), higher dosage, temporary abstinence or smoking reduction (using NRT to reduce smoke intake) may be needed to help more smokers to quit.
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Keywords: addiction; nicotine; nicotine replacement therapy; pharmacokinetics; tobacco dependence

Document Type: Review Article

Affiliations: Pharmacia R & D Consumer HealthCare, Rennes, France

Publication date: 01 September 2003

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  • The International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease publishes articles on all aspects of lung health, including public health-related issues such as training programmes, cost-benefit analysis, legislation, epidemiology, intervention studies and health systems research. The IJTLD is dedicated to the continuing education of physicians and health personnel and the dissemination of information on tuberculosis and lung health world-wide.

    Certain IJTLD articles are selected for translation into French, Spanish, Chinese or Russian. They are available on the Union website

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