A one-year monitoring of nicotine use in sport: frontier between potential performance enhancement and addiction issues

Forensic Sci Int. 2011 Dec 10;213(1-3):73-84. doi: 10.1016/j.forsciint.2011.05.026. Epub 2011 Jun 30.


Tobacco consumption is a global epidemic responsible for a vast burden of disease. With pharmacological properties sought-after by consumers and responsible for addiction issues, nicotine is the main reason of this phenomenon. Accordingly, smokeless tobacco products are of growing popularity in sport owing to potential performance enhancing properties and absence of adverse effects on the respiratory system. Nevertheless, nicotine does not appear on the 2011 World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Prohibited List or Monitoring Program by lack of a comprehensive large-scale prevalence survey. Thus, this work describes a one-year monitoring study on urine specimens from professional athletes of different disciplines covering 2010 and 2011. A method for the detection and quantification of nicotine, its major metabolites (cotinine, trans-3-hydroxycotinine, nicotine-N'-oxide and cotinine-N-oxide) and minor tobacco alkaloids (anabasine, anatabine and nornicotine) was developed, relying on ultra-high pressure liquid chromatography coupled to triple quadrupole mass spectrometry (UHPLC-TQ-MS/MS). A simple and fast dilute-and-shoot sample treatment was performed, followed by hydrophilic interaction chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (HILIC-MS/MS) operated in positive electrospray ionization (ESI) mode with multiple reaction monitoring (MRM) data acquisition. After method validation, assessing the prevalence of nicotine consumption in sport involved analysis of 2185 urine samples, accounting for 43 different sports. Concentrations distribution of major nicotine metabolites, minor nicotine metabolites and tobacco alkaloids ranged from 10 (LLOQ) to 32,223, 6670 and 538 ng/mL, respectively. Compounds of interest were detected in trace levels in 23.0% of urine specimens, with concentration levels corresponding to an exposure within the last three days for 18.3% of samples. Likewise, hypothesizing conservative concentration limits for active nicotine consumption prior and/or during sport practice (50 ng/mL for nicotine, cotinine and trans-3-hydroxycotinine and 25 ng/mL for nicotine-N'-oxide, cotinine-N-oxide, anabasine, anatabine and nornicotine) revealed a prevalence of 15.3% amongst athletes. While this number may appear lower than the worldwide smoking prevalence of around 25%, focusing the study on selected sports highlighted more alarming findings. Indeed, active nicotine consumption in ice hockey, skiing, biathlon, bobsleigh, skating, football, basketball, volleyball, rugby, American football, wrestling and gymnastics was found to range between 19.0 and 55.6%. Therefore, considering the adverse effects of smoking on the respiratory tract and numerous health threats detrimental to sport practice at top level, likelihood of smokeless tobacco consumption for performance enhancement is greatly supported.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alkaloids / urine
  • Anabasine / urine
  • Athletes*
  • Chromatography, Liquid
  • Cotinine / analogs & derivatives
  • Cotinine / urine
  • Doping in Sports
  • Humans
  • Mass Spectrometry
  • Nicotine / analogs & derivatives
  • Nicotine / urine*
  • Performance-Enhancing Substances / urine
  • Pyridines / urine
  • Smoking / urine
  • Spectrometry, Mass, Electrospray Ionization
  • Tobacco, Smokeless / analysis*


  • Alkaloids
  • Performance-Enhancing Substances
  • Pyridines
  • hydroxycotinine
  • cotinine-N-oxide
  • anatabine
  • Nicotine
  • nornicotine
  • Cotinine
  • Anabasine