Nicotine- Tobacco’s “N” Word

Nicotine effects of pipes and cigar smokingThe title of this article is actually a pretty fair statement because it’s the one word that no tobacco company wants to use when talking about their blends. But nicotine is a fact of life if you smoke any form of tobacco. What got me thinking about this was a blog post by my friend Neill Archer Roan on his website, A Passion for Pipes. The post was about Neill’s interaction with Vitamin N. I love reading Neill’s blogs because he does such great research about a subject that intrigues him, and this was no exception. I was a bit surprised that I was mentioned in the post, mainly because of an exchange that Neill and I had about a couple of weeks ago.

Neill had been one of the judges for the Balkan Sobranie 759 Throwdown during the Chicagoland Pipe Show this year, and we became friends very quickly as we both really are passionate about the hobby. So when I had two new Marquee Series blends coming out, I sent a tin of each to Neill to ask for his feedback. Shortly after receiving the tins, I got an email from him asking about the blend, because he and some friends found the blend a little bit strong in the nicotine department, which sometimes happens with matured Virginias that have been exposed to heat and/or pressure. I responded about the blend, and expressed a little surprise about the nicotine content, but in retrospect, I should have sampled the blend to other people than myself, as I don’t usually have much of a reaction to nicotine. But I made a suggestion to Neill about taking a piece of chocolate before or after smoking anything that has a fair amount of nicotine. He tried the suggestion to good results, so far, as indicated in his post.

“Wow,” I thought. “Here is a possible preventive measure that might make it possible for me to expand my pipe-tobacco repertoire.”

I have barely begun my experimentation with Russ’ suggestion, but so far, so good. I’ve had a couple of smallish bowls of Stonehaven after a half chocolate bar. While I still felt the nicotine somewhat, the effect was much less than usual. I am currently trying a bit more chocolate after about fifteen minutes of smoking time in order to extend the effect. So far, so good.

So, I got thinking about this alkaloid compound which is so reviled. Please don’t think that I believe that using nicotine in any form is without risk, just as I don’t believe that using firearms or driving a car don’t have inherent risks, but there’s a lot about this chemical that people don’t know, so let’s take a quick look.

Effects of nicotine poisoningWe know that, under certain circumstances, nicotine can cause a headache, queasiness, lightheadedness and even hiccups, but it tends to happen with people who are prone to being sensitive or when the situation brings together various elements that exacerbate the tendency. In higher concentrations or in larger quantity it can be poisonous. Bear in mind, however, that the impact of nicotine is much greater for cigarette smokers than pipe and cigar smokers, because inhaling the smoke allows it to be absorbed much more readily by the large surface area inside one’s lungs. In fact, when inhaled, the nicotine gets past the blood-brain barrier in less than half a minute. By contrast, puffing on a pipe or cigar delivers the chemical much more slowly, since it has to be absorbed through the much smaller mucus membranes of the mouth and tongue. It actually takes about 20 minutes for the nicotine to take hold for pipe or cigar smokers, and the onset is more gradual than the “rush” one gets from a cigarette.

As I mentioned in my email to Neill, taking some candy before, during or after smoking can mitigate some of the negative effects, as Vitamin N causes one’s liver to dump sugar into the blood, and then there’s a crash after that influx. By eating some candy, especially chocolate, this effect is minimized. The reason chocolate works best is because it also contains caffeine, which helps one’s body metabolize nicotine.

But something that is rarely, if ever, talked about regarding nicotine are the benefits it can provide. First off, it causes an unusual dichotomy within the human body; it is, all at the same time, a stimulant and a calmative. It makes one’s mind clearer and will help concentration, but at the same time causes relaxation. It also has a mostly positive impact on digestion, which explains the old British tradition of the post-prandial cigar or pipe. It has also been reported that it may have medicinal value for people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity  Disorder, Alzheimer’s Disease and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Because of its ability to stimulate, it can raise blood pressure and heart rate, but normally by a small amount. This is one of the main reasons why nicotine in counterindicated for those with hypertension and certain types of heart ailments. That said, most adults will encounter few or no noticeable ill-effects from its use.

The effects of Vitamin N for NicotineNicotine also has a mild pain-reducing effect due to its ability to cause the release of endorphins and dopamine. This also will help ease anxiety with certain people, which is why cigarette smokers who are under extreme stress will almost automatically reach for a smoke to calm down. The stimulating effect is normally the first noticeable aspect of nicotine use, and the calming effect comes later.

If you read Neill’s blog, you’ll see a chart that shows the nicotine levels for the varieties of tobaccos used in pipe blends . You’ll notice that Virginia tends to be quite low, but that can change depending upon how it’s processed. The use of heat and pressure can increase the level significantly. Orientals, including Latakia, are moderately low, as is Maryland. Burleys have the highest concentration of nicotine, although different strains will have varying levels, and Perique tends to be higher as well, because it’s a highly processed offshoot of Burley.

Nicotine is an addictive substance. I’m not Pollyanna enough to deny this as fact, but nicotine doesn’t have the extreme negative effects of other such substances. Yes, if you smoke cigarettes, there are greater risks because the addiction causes one to smoke more and the tars from the smoke can definitely  cause problems, but pipe and cigars smokers don’t inhale, so the potential negative impact is lessened.

Lastly, nicotine also has an influence on taste. If you smoke a cigar or pipe blend that you can describe as “spicy”, especially if the flavor is peppery, then you’re tasting the influence of Vitamin N. So if you’ve ever wondered why spicy cigars and pipe tobaccos also tend to hit you a little harder than milder tasting ones, now you know why.

All this typing and the intense thought that writing this has taken its toll on me and made me tense and anxious. I think I’ll have a cigar.

About Russ

Russ Ouellette is the blender/creator of the Hearth & Home series of tobaccos for in Bethlehem, PA. He has been a pipe smoker and blender for over 30 years, and enjoys feedback from the pipe smoking public. You can reach Russ at or by calling 1-800-494-9144.