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

Int J Tuberc Lung Dis. 2003 Sep;7(9):811-9.


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.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Affect
  • Cognition
  • Ganglionic Stimulants / administration & dosage
  • Ganglionic Stimulants / pharmacokinetics*
  • Ganglionic Stimulants / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Nicotine / administration & dosage
  • Nicotine / pharmacokinetics*
  • Nicotine / pharmacology*
  • Reinforcement, Psychology
  • Smoking / psychology*
  • Smoking Cessation / methods*
  • Smoking Cessation / psychology*
  • Social Behavior
  • Tobacco Use Disorder / drug therapy*
  • Tobacco Use Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Ganglionic Stimulants
  • Nicotine