Why Smoke and Coke Go Hand in Hand

By Tracey Logan 11/02/11

Nicotine boosts the hit from cocaine, meaning smokers are more likely to get addicted to the drug than non-smokers, scientists find.

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Nicotine boosts the hit from cocaine, making smokers more likely to get hooked after first trying the drug, says new research, which may explain why smoking can be a "gateway" to addiction to other substances. Researchers in the laboratories of New York’s Columbia University found that mice accustomed to drinking nicotine-laced water responded far more strongly to cocaine than mice that drank just plain water. Cocaine-injected mice that drank nicotine solution were almost twice as hyperactive as those drinking just plain water—and the activity in their brains’ reward centers was boosted. Writing in the journal Science Translational Medicine, Amir Levine and colleagues say nicotine may enhance cocaine’s effect on a gene (FosB) linked to drug-seeking behavior. And what happens in mice may well happen in people, too. Reviewing long-term studies of cocaine use among former New York High School students, the researchers found that most of them first sampled cocaine after starting smoking. A separate review showed that across the US population, smokers were over three times more likely to become dependent on cocaine than non-smokers who start using. While this points to the wider benefits of anti-smoking campaigns in tackling drug dependence, it also highlights the potential perils of giving up smoking in early recovery. Since nicotine patches may be have the same effect on cocaine users as cigarettes, excessive use could help turn a slip into a downhill slope, if the mice experience is applicable to humans.

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Tracey Logan is an award-winning science writer and broadcaster for the BBC and other media outlets. Her articles for TheFix include an a story about Prometa meth treatment and an interesting piece about relapse prevention. You can follow Tracey on Twitter.

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