Tobacco leaf

Last published: September 23, 2019

What is nicotine?

Products such as cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco, and wet and dry snuff and the dried leaves from the tobacco plant all contain nicotine.1

Nicotine is a stimulant drug that speeds up the messages travelling between the brain and body. It may be more addictive than heroin. Tar and carbon monoxide (a toxic gas) are also released when tobacco is burned, such as when it’s smoked.Nicotine, as it occurs in tobacco has no therapeutic or medical use but small doses have been used to treat nicotine dependence.

Electronic cigarettes (also known as E cigarettes) don’t contain dried tobacco leaves, but they may still contain nicotine.

Street names

Ciggies, darts, durries, rollies, smokes, fags, butts, cancer sticks.

How is nicotine used?

Tobacco which contains nicotine is usually smoked in cigarettes. It is also smoked in cigars and pipes.

Other types of commonly used stimulants

Effects of nicotine

There is no safe level of drug use. Use of any drug always carries some risk. It’s important to be careful when taking any type of drug.

Nicotine affects everyone differently, based on:

  • size, weight and health
  • whether the person is used to taking it
  • whether other drugs are taken around the same time
  • the amount taken
  • the strength of the tobacco and how much is contained in the product.

The following effects may be experienced:

  • mild stimulation
  • coughing
  • dizziness, headaches
  • increase in heart rate
  • bad breath
  • tingling and numbness in fingers and toes
  • reduced appetite, stomach cramps and vomiting.3

If a large amount of nicotine is taken the following effects may also be experienced:

  • confusion
  • feeling faint
  • seizures
  • fast breathing
  • respiratory arrest (stop breathing) and death.4

Some people believe that smoking ‘light’ or ‘low tar’ cigarettes is less harmful than regular cigarettes. However, there is little difference between the amount of chemicals inhaled by people who smoke ‘light’ cigarettes and those who smoke regular ones.5

Long-term effects

Regular use of nicotine may eventually cause:

  • shortness of breath
  • coughing fits, asthma and lung diseases
  • regular colds or flu
  • loss of taste and smell
  • yellow, rotting teeth
  • yellow fingertips
  • early wrinkles
  • back pain
  • slower-healing wounds
  • mood swings
  • eye disease and hearing loss
  • stomach ulcers
  • difficulty having children (males and females)
  • irregular periods and early menopause (females)
  • difficulty getting an erection (males)
  • cancer (in many areas of the body)
  • stroke and brain damage
  • heart attack and disease
  • needing to use more to get the same effect
  • dependence on nicotine
  • financial, work and social problems4

Passive smoking

Passive smoking is when someone breathes in smoke from other people smoking. Passive smoking can cause many of the health problems listed above, so it’s important not to smoke near other people, particularly babies, children, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and people with chronic respiratory conditions.6

Using nicotine with other drugs

The effects of using nicotine with other drugs – including over-the-counter or prescribed medications – can be unpredictable and could cause:

  • Nicotine + benzodiazepines: reduced effectiveness of benzodiazepines.
  • Nicotine + contraceptive pill: increased risk of blood clots forming.7

It’s important to check with a medical professional about whether nicotine might affect any medications you are taking.


Giving up nicotine after using it for a long time is challenging because the body has to get used to functioning without it. Withdrawal symptoms usually start within 2–3 hours after you last use tobacco. The symptoms may last from a few days to a few weeks. These symptoms can include:

  • cravings
  • irritability, anxiety and depression
  • restless sleep
  • eating more and putting on weight
  • trouble concentrating
  • headaches
  • coughing and sore throat
  • aches and pains
  • upset stomach and bowels.8

You may still crave a cigarette for months and years after giving up. It’s important to ask for help if you need it. Call Quitline on 13 QUIT (13 7848).

Federal and state laws make it an offence to sell or supply tobacco products to people under 18 years of age. It is also illegal for anyone under 18 years to purchase tobacco products.

There are laws that regulate and restrict how tobacco products are advertised, promoted and packaged.

There are also laws and regulations that restrict smoking in public areas such as shopping centres, cafes and workplaces. Most states and territories have laws that ban smoking in cars with children.

See also, drugs and the law.


  • 37.7% of Australians aged 14 years and over have used tobacco.9
  • More males than females are daily smokers across all age groups.9
  • People who smoke aged 12 years and over smoked on average 93.6 cigarettes per week.9
  • Around 1 in 8 (12.2%) Australians aged 14 years and over smoke daily.9
  • In 2012, 12.5% of all mothers reported that they had smoked while pregnant. This is down from 13.2% in 2011 and 13.5% in 2010.10
  • Teenage mothers accounted for 10.2% of all mothers who reported smoking during pregnancy. But of all teenage mothers, 34.9% reported smoking.10

Young people

  • Young Australians (aged 14–24) have their first full cigarette at 16.3 years on average.9
  • 97.6% of 12–17 years old have not smoked. The proportion of 12–17 years old who have never smoked decreases in the older age groups, but by age 17 93.9%  have still never smoked.
  • 2.7% of all 12-17 years old have smoked more than 100 cigarettes in their lifetime, which peaks at 7.9% among 17 year olds.11
  1. American Cancer Society. (2013). Other forms of tobacco favoured by young people.
  2. Julien, R., Advokat, C., & Comaty, J. (eds.). (2011). A primer of drug action (12th ed.). New York: Worth Publishing.
  3. Quit Victoria. (2014). Health risks of smoking.
  4. Brands, B., Sproule, B., & Marshman, J. (Eds.). (1998). Drugs & drug abuse (3rd ed.). Ontario: Addiction Research
  5. Foundation.Bellew, B., Greenhalgh, E. & Winstanley, M. (2015). Health effects of brands of tobacco products which claim or imply, delivery of lower levels of tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide
  6. Cancer Council Victoria. (2005). Exposure to and perceptions of the dangers and illnesses of passive smoking among Victorians: 2004.
  7. Lucas, C. & Martin, J. (2013). Smoking and drug interactions.
  8. Quit Victoria. (2014). What are withdrawal symptoms?
  9. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2017). National Drug Strategy Household Survey detailed report 2016. Canberra: AIHW.
  10. Hilder, L., Zhichao, Z., Parker, M., & Chambers, G.M. (2014) Australia’s mothers and babies 2012. Perinatal statistics series, no. 20. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
  11. White, V., & Williams, T. (2016). Australian secondary school students’ use of tobacco, alcohol, and over-the-counter and illicit substances in 2014. Melbourne: The Cancer Council, Victoria

Explore stimulants on the Drug Wheel

Drug wheel segment - Stimulants segment@2x.png


bad breath, coughing, dizziness, faintness, fast heart rate, feeling alert, feeling happy, feeling relaxed, headache, reduced appetite, stomach cramps, tingling and numbness in fingers and toes, vomiting


butts, cancer sticks, ciggies, darts, durries, fags, rollies, smokes