Imagine a new class of drugs that can blunt serious psychiatric disorders, repel the onset of Alzheimer’s and improve attention in ADHD-afflicted teens, as well as relieve a range of physical ailments, from ulcerative colitis to chronic pain. If tests were already being done in humans, you would probably have heard about it on the evening news, right? Did I mention that these compounds might help you lose weight too?
Not only does this potential medical breakthrough exist, but it comes from a most unlikely source, one generally associated with addiction, sickness and death: nicotine. What’s stranger still is that much of the relevant research into nicotinic compounds comes from Big Tobacco, the makers and marketers of one of the most addictive substances on the planet and the single most preventable cause of death. Researchers even believe that understanding nicotine may lead one day to an effective “cure” for smoking.
The negative health risks of cigarette smoking are so overwhelming that its beneficial effects have been largely ignored. But as every smoker knows, lighting up can sharpen concentration and elevate mood. Over the decades, doctors have also observed that smokers have below-average rates of certain diseases, including Parkinson’s and ulcerative colitis.
Psychopharmacology has demonstrated nicotine’s capacity as an all-around cognitive enhancer, increasing the brain’s learning and memory functions.
Meanwhile, deep in the tobacco fields of North Carolina, R.J. Reynolds and other tobacco companies had spent many millions of dollars on nicotine research. Their chemists worked to breed a more powerful and flavorful tobacco leaf. They also infused cigarettes with additives that would maximize the addictiveness of their product. Some estimates count 4,000 chemical additives in modern cigarettes. In the process, Big Tobacco’s labs — and, in particular, that of tobacco giant Reynolds — became the world’s leading repository of knowledge about nicotine as a drug.