Does Nicotine Cause Cancer?

By Dr. Annie Macpherson
Updated: 2019-09-14

What is a Carcinogen, and What is a Tumor Promoter?

Nicotine Cause Cancer.

DNA stores your genetic information. Carcinogens cause mutations in the four DNA bases (shown right) which can cause cancer

Identifying Carcinogen

A carcinogen is a substance or effect that encourages your body to develop cancer. Carcinogens increase your risk of cancer in several different ways, by increasing or permanently damaging and mutating your DNA, or encouraging uncontrolled growth. As you increase your exposure to carcinogens, you will increase your risk of cancer. Many carcinogens have been identified from tobacco smoke [1]. The more you smoke, the more you expose yourself to these carcinogens, and the more likely you are to develop cancer.

Identifying Tumor Promoter

A tumour promoter is something that can encourage and stimulate the growth of a tumor that is already there, but cannot cause tumors to form initially. Tumor promoters can be external substances or even genetic mutations. There is some contradicting work on whether or not nicotine could have potential tumor promoter properties [6].

Is Nicotine a Carcinogen?

More Facts On Carcinogen

NRTs, such as e-cigarettes, patches and gum, help people to get their nicotine fix without exposing themselves to the damaging effects of tobacco smoke. These products are a relatively new way to consume nicotine. Experts are still looking for conclusive evidence that long-term use of nicotine, in the absence of tobacco smoke, does not have a carcinogenic effect. Research into this subject at the moment seems to often contradict itself. It seems as though nicotine is not a carcinogen alone, but it can promote the carcinogenic properties of other compounds it is commonly associated with, for example those found in tobacco smoke [2].

To put this into perspective, most of the carcinogenic compounds found in tobacco smoke have been established for decades. The discussion that researchers are having at the moment is whether, when used alone, nicotine has any carcinogenic potential at all [3].

Can Nicotine Cause Cancer?

Nicotine On Cancer

The US Department of Health and Human Services agrees that nicotine, when consumed in the absence of tobacco smoke, does not cause cancer [4]. They concluded in a 2014 report that there was no direct evidence for any carcinogenicity of NRTs, an overall win for people looking to quit smoking with the help of nicotine replacements.

Studies done on healthy and cancerous lung cells show that nicotine seems to have the potential to act as a tumor promoter in some cases [5]. This means nicotine could have the potential to encourage the growth of an already existing cancer. This work is controversial though, and contradicted by similar work done in mouse models of lung cancer, which scientists consider more reliable [7]. If you already have cancer, or a history of cancer, it is probably best to avoid consuming any nicotine whatsoever.

Conclusion

Tobacco smoke is a complex mixture of several thousand chemicals, many of which are widely accepted as carcinogenic. There is a lot of conclusive scientific evidence proving the carcinogenic nature of these chemicals; yet, at the moment, research is still inconclusive about whether or not nicotine contributes to the cancer-causing properties of tobacco [2].

Although results are still not conclusive, current opinion amongst researchers is that nicotine does not have the capacity to cause cancer by itself, but taking nicotine might encourage existing cancers to grow.

It is important to separate nicotine from the widely established harmful effects of smoking tobacco. NRTs are proven to help people quit smoking faster, and forever. People looking to quit smoking should not shy away from using NRTs, as they carry minimal risks to your health, particularly if you consider smoking as the alternative. If you chose to use NRTs to help you stop smoking, you are exposing yourself to far fewer carcinogens that if you were to remain a smoker.

Sources

1. “Harms of Cigarette Smoking and Health Benefits of Quitting“. National Cancer Institute. Accessed 19/11/2018

2. Sanner T, Grimsrud TK. Nicotine: Carcinogenicity and Effects on Response to Cancer Treatment – A Review. Front Oncol. 2015;5:196. Published 2015 Aug 31.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4553893/

3. Haussmann, Hans-Juergen and Marc W Fariss. “Comprehensive review of epidemiological and animal studies on the potential carcinogenic effects of nicotine per se” Critical reviews in toxicology vol. 46,8 (2016): 701-34.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5020336/

4. 50 Years of Progress. US Department of Health and Human Services. 2014.
http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/reports/50-years-of-progress/full-report.pdf/

5. Chernyavsky, Alex I et al. “Mechanisms of tumor-promoting activities of nicotine in lung cancer: synergistic effects of cell membrane and mitochondrial nicotinic acetylcholine receptors” BMC cancer vol. 15 152. 19 Mar. 2015, doi:10.1186/s12885-015-1158-4
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4369089/

6. Petros, William P et al. “Effects of tobacco smoking and nicotine on cancer treatment” Pharmacotherapy vol. 32,10 (2012): 920-31.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3499669/

7. Long-term nicotine replacement therapy: cancer risk in context. Shields PG Cancer Prev Res (Phila). 2011 Nov; 4(11):1719-23.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22052338/

8. Hecht, Stephen S and Eva Szabo. “Fifty years of tobacco carcinogenesis research: from mechanisms to early detection and prevention of lung cancer” Cancer prevention research (Philadelphia, Pa.) vol. 7,1 (2014): 1-8.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4296669/

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Dr. Annie Macpherson
Dr. Annie Macpherson

Annie has a PhD in Genome Stability from the University of Sussex. She has first-hand experience in cancer and human disease research. This allows her to provide us with new and unbiased insights into the ongoing research of the public and health effects of vaping. She loves an adventure, and has travelled through South East Asia and Australia working for Vaping Insider.