Jake Kapsner

At a time when college students are said to be blowing more smoke and new tobacco cessation products continue to hit the market, recent University studies suggest that nicotine could pose health risks beyond hooking people to cigarettes.
While cigarettes are proven to be very destructive, the studies suggest nicotine replacement products — like gum, the patch, inhalers and nasal spray — could pose significant risks when used for years beyond the Federal Drug Administration’s recommended six-month limit.
In papers published November in Molecular Pharmacology and in October’s issue of the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, Dr. Bianca Conti-Fine and colleagues found that nicotine disrupts and distorts the natural stimulation process of cells lining blood vessels and the lungs.
The studies, led by University biochemistry and pharmacology professor Conti-Fine, suggest that long term use of nicotine can tear holes in the lining of blood vessels and in airways of the lungs. Such cell damage could lead to health problems ranging from wrinkling of the skin to bronchitis and atherosclerosis, a cumulative degeneration of the arteries.
Conti-Fine stressed that further long-term studies of nicotine users need to be carried out to apply the research, which was conducted at the cellular and molecular level, to living humans.
“It should in no way detract from the usefulness of nicotine replacement treatment to stop smoking and in no way raise anxiety in people about the use of nicotine as a short-term aid to quit smoking,” she said.
By analyzing cells grown in a laboratory culture, the scientists discovered a cell receptor which is sensitive to nicotine.
Conti-Fine explained that cells are normally stretched out like tile work in an active process controlled by acetylcholine, a natural substance which stimulates the cells into flattening out.
Long-term nicotine exposure may block the cell’s ability to self-stimulate, preventing the cells from spreading out and causing them to recoil into separate ball shapes. As the cells ball up, they tear away from one another. This weakens the lining of blood vessels and bronchial tubes and, in the case of cigarette smoking, may allow carcinogens to leak into the lung tissue.
Two graduate students, Arno Maus and Kevin Macklin, and three post-doctoral fellows contributed to the studies.
“Conti-Fine’s work is by no means the first investigation to describe mechanisms by which tobacco smoke destroys arteries. However, it is one of the first pieces of work that shows how nicotine contributes to arterial damage,” said Dr. Alan Hirsch, associate professor of medicine and radiology and expert in vascular pathology.
The nature of nicotine addiction prompts tobacco users to want to keep high levels of nicotine in their blood, Conti-Fine said, cautioning that widespread, over-the-counter access to nicotine products coupled with an absence of red flags that indicate nicotine’s potential long-term threats could pose a public health risk.
Extended use of nicotine theoretically poses a risk, but it shouldn’t cause alarm, Hirsch said.
Namely, because the nicotine products don’t deliver nearly the dose of nicotine that a cigarette does, and people aren’t intended to use the products for long, the health risks are lower. Nicotine products also don’t contain the numerous other dangerous chemicals which tobacco does, he said.

Smoking on the rise?
The number of college smokers is on the rise, according to a Harvard University study published in the November edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association. The four-year study said the prevalence of monthly smoking rose from 22.3 percent to 28.5 percent in 99 of 116 surveyed colleges.
While the national study indicates smoking is on the rise among college students, the same isn’t necessarily true at the University, said Dave Golden, director of public health at Boynton Health Service.
A Boynton health survey conducted in spring of 1998 found that 8.8 percent of University graduate and undergraduate students had used tobacco every day in the past month. These statistics parroted a Boynton study done three years ago, Golden said.
In the 1998 study, 64 percent of the students said they didn’t use tobacco products. “That means the rest are occasional users,” Golden said, “who use anywhere from one to 29 days a month.”
The Boynton pharmacy now sells nicotine gum and patches to patients without prescriptions. The health center doesn’t offer nicotine nasal spray, which just came on the market, nor the inhaler product, a kind of fake plastic cigarette that emits nicotine into the mouth and throat.
Soon, however, the University clinic will offer free Nicotrol patches to help smokers quit as part of the state’s $6.1 billion tobacco settlement.
The state purchased about $4 million worth of patches, and the University ordered enough for 500 students, staff and faculty to quit in six weeks time, Golden said.
But knowing just how many University folk will cash in on the free fix to help kick the habit is uncertain.
“We’ve never tried giving them out for free,” he said.