Do smokers self-administer pure nicotine? A review of the evidence

Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2004 Apr;173(1-2):18-26. doi: 10.1007/s00213-004-1781-2. Epub 2004 Mar 5.


Rationale: Nicotine is almost universally believed to be the primary agent motivating tobacco smoking and the main impediment to cessation. A principal argument in support of the presumed reinforcing properties of nicotine is that smokers self-administer pure nicotine. However, the evidence for nicotine self-administration in smokers has not been critically examined.

Objectives: To review and examine the empirical basis for the assertion that smokers self-administer pure nicotine.

Methods: We reviewed all the studies we were able to locate that are cited as demonstrating self-administration of nicotine, isolated from tobacco, in normal smokers and non-smokers. These studies investigated self-administration of intravenous nicotine, nicotine gum and nicotine spray. Using the authors' own criteria, we examined whether these studies in fact demonstrate nicotine-self administration.

Results: None of the studies we reviewed demonstrated nicotine self-administration in smokers. Both smokers and non-smokers failed to show preference for nicotine over placebo in any of these studies, including in a series of six reports of overnight abstinent smokers having access to nicotine nasal spray, a rapidly absorbed form of nicotine.

Conclusions: The common statement that smokers self-administer pure nicotine lacks empirical support. Smokers in fact do not administer pure nicotine in any of the forms studied to date, even when abstinent and presumably nicotine-deprived. This conclusion necessitates a critical re-examination of the nicotine addiction thesis.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Drug Administration Routes
  • Humans
  • Nicotine / administration & dosage*
  • Nicotinic Agonists / administration & dosage*
  • Reinforcement, Psychology
  • Self Administration
  • Smoking / psychology*


  • Nicotinic Agonists
  • Nicotine