I got a tooth extracted recently and was instructed not to drink alcohol or smoke for 24 hours. Not exactly a big problem for me though I did miss my ‘Pipe Sunday’ relaxation on the balcony as a result!

It got me thinking though –¬†Nicotine has been with the human race for quite a while. Perhaps not as long as alcohol I suspect, but still old enough to have been thoroughly engrained in history and even religion in various cultures.


In and of itself, nicotine, named for Jean Nicot a French explorer, is a rather toxic alkaloid derived from tobacco.

As an aside – I’m theoretically a bit of a flower-fan. I once considered studying botany but when I realised that most jobs/courses were about farming/agriculture/crop yield improvement/etc. I lost interest.

I include the ‘theoretically’ caveat as I don’t know any Latin names (‘pinkus flowerum’, subspecies¬†‘nicesmellin’) but I do like the genetics and biochemistry of plants and their derivatives. I used to help my mum a lot with gardening and flower-arranging. (An uncommon skill for a man to have but non-the-less has been useful on more than one occasion!)

Anyway, tobacco is in the nightshade family, which also includes belladonna, potatoes, tomatoes as well as tobacco and each of these are pretty cool in their own place throughout history. (Though my favourite flower is the snapdragon!)

Belladonna gives us atropine which cures nerve gas but was originally used as a cosmetic (and even today is rarely used for eye dilation in children). Apparently the berries are dark round and sweet (looking a bit like mini-tomatoes due to their familial relationship?)

Potatoes – the plant itself is poisonous but the tuberous root (id est ‘the spud’) is the edible part. Although I am Irish I am not a fan of potatoes, usually due to the varieties which we get in Ireland being horrid!

Tomatoes – basically red edible belladonna berries. The leaves are poisonous towards humans as they contain the toxic alkaloids.

Tobacco – looks a little like a potato plant but has tiny tiny roots and contains nicotine, the stimulant of subject here.

I think it’s interesting that nicotine as a drug it has several positive as well as negative effects. Like many other poisonous plant derived alkaloids – cocaine for example is an anaesthetic as well as an illegal stimulant, caffeine is actually deadly in sufficient doses too!

What’s interesting is that recently, society seems to be programmed to see ‘nicotine = cancer’, rather than the actual pros and cons. Indeed cancer is very bad, but so is hypertension from being stressed, or suicide from depression or whatever other myriad of reasons people smoke. Indeed some historians credit the British provisioning of fags to their soldiers as a significant part of winning the war (more alert, more able to focus) compared to the vehemently anti-smoking Nazis. (Poor German soldiers – must have been hard to get a cigarette!)

What I find a little irritating is how alcohol is more damaging than pretty much every other drug short of cyanide as well as being a depressant and yet is more tolerated in the UK. It may be that if you are drinking it only you take it in whereas smoke can travel (I don’t agree with smoking in pubs, workplaces, cars with children etc)

In the US alcohol is less socially acceptable (until you’re 21!) but tobacco use is more historically engrained there and there appears to be less stigma.

Another thing is the attitude of addiction, I don’t need my pipe, I don’t even ‘want’ it most of the time. I can take or leave it, it is a past-time or a hobby. A rather patient device it can just sit and wait until there’s a nice Sunday afternoon or calm evening. In ‘the olden days’ cigars or cigarettes seemed to be more of a celebratory indulgence – like a glass of spirits, not something to have continiously but only on jolly occasions. And I think, like alcoholism we’ve gone far away from that and as a result it is being stigmatised. So much so that I now bear the label of a ‘smoker’ even though I smoke approximately 0.3 cigarettes pert day!


  1. Jean Carroll says:

    The things I learn from my baby cousins! I love this post. Atropine is also on a crash trolley in hospitals. I’ve been out of nursing so long I forget it’s actual function, but I’m pretty sure it’s not for dilating the pupils of expiring patients. And spuds are poisonous….it’s no wonder we turned out like this XXX

  2. Joe says:

    I think that they use it as a vaso-dialtor (misspelled) and it relaxes muscles I think.

Leave a Reply