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Boosting the Impact of Nicotine with Ammonia

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Updated June 19, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Boosting the Impact of Nicotine with Ammonia
Kartik Jasti Photography/Creative(RF)/Getty Images

What Ammonia is:

Ammonia is a toxic, colorless gas with a very sharp odor. Ammonia occurs naturally in the environment and is also a product of human activity.

How Ammonia is Used:

Ammonia compounds are commonly used in cleaning products and fertilizers. Ammonia is also used to boost the impact of nicotine in manufactured cigarettes.

Two Forms of Nicotine:

Nicotine exists in two forms, acid(bound) and base(free). In tobacco smoke, free nicotine molecules vaporize more easily than bound nicotine molecules. Once nicotine vaporizes into a gas, it is quickly absorbed by the lungs and distributed throughout body.

Freebasing Nicotine With Ammonia:

Tobacco companies discovered that adding ammonia to the cigarette manufacturing process helps convert bound nicotine molecules in tobacco smoke into free nicotine molecules. This process is known as "freebasing." Similar to the chemical process of freebasing cocaine, the end result is an enhanced effect of the drug on the user.

The Organoleptic Effect:

Organoleptic is a word used to define those qualities in a product that appeal to one's senses -- that of taste, odor and feel, for instance. Tobacco manufacturers use this term to describe the effect of free nicotine on smokers. Lorillard Tobacco Company documents from the 1970s suggest that research on treating tobacco with ammonia became an interest when low-tar cigarettes were introduced to the market. It was found that nicotine levels fell right along with the tar content in low-tar cigarettes, diminishing the organoleptic effect for the smoker.

It's All About Customer Satisfaction:

Enhancing the nicotine kick smokers receive when lighting up through the use of ammonia in tobacco processing is said to increase smoking satisfaction. One might argue that freebasing nicotine with ammonia only leads to a more intensely addictive nicotine experience for the seasoned smoker and a quicker road to addiction for the new smoker.

More on the Chemicals in Cigarettes:

Cigarette smoke is a toxic brew of over 7,000 chemicals, including upwards of 250 poisonous and 70 carcinogenic compounds.

 

Sources:
Ammonia Treatment of Tobacco. 17 February, 1977. Tobacco Documents Online.

ToxFAQs™: Ammonia. September, 2004. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

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