Researchers have studied the effects of nicotine on melanin-containing tissues for many years, and what they have found may surprise you.
In 2009, a research team led by Gary King, professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State, published their findings on the relationship between nicotine and melanin.
King states that previous research shows that nicotine has a biochemical affinity for melanin. Conceivably, this association could result in an accumulation of the addictive agent in melanin-containing tissues of smokers with greater amounts of skin pigmentation.
“The point of the study is that, if in fact, nicotine does bind to melanin, populations with high levels of melanin could indicate certain types of smoking behavior, dependence, and health outcomes that will be different from those in less pigmented populations,” explained King. “And the addiction process may very well be longer and more severe.”
It’s not so surprising that the media went crazy and spun a thread of conversation around skin color and nicotine addiction, ignoring the fact that melanin is widely dispersed in the human body, and can be found in the heart, lungs, liver, brain and inner ear, among others. It’s already established that there’s no ethnic or racial differences in the number of melanocytes (where melanin is produced) in each person’s body.
Beyond the sensationalism, however, the research evidently showed that nicotine in small amounts stimulates tyrosinase activity and melanin synthesis, which in turn, leads to some detoxifying effects on the body. Here’s what Yerger and Malone found out when they reviewed the available literature on nicotine and melanin in 2005:
Melanin’s ability to bind to drugs and chemicals may be detoxifying and protective by absorbing potentially harmful substances (Ortonne, 2002). One investigator suggested that the “harmless stimulation of the pigmentary system [skin] with chemical drugs may prevent toxic destruction of [this] melanin-containing tissue” (Hedin, 1991).
But, when the cells become oversaturated with nicotine, what seems like a good thing now becomes toxic for the individual. Delijewski et al explained this in technical terms in an article published on June 19, 2014:
“…a long-term exposition to xenobiotics with high affinity for melanin may lead to degeneration of pigmented cells. It is believed that the process of drug-induced damages of melanin-containing tissues takes place when the detoxifying capacities of melanin are exhausted.”
This is when it becomes problematic for people with dark hair, eyes and skin. Because they have more melanin in the body, they tend to absorb more nicotine into their systems compared to those with fair skin and light-colored hair and eyes. They may absorb nicotine either from directly inhaling cigarette smoke or from exposure to second-hand smoke.
They are also prone to nicotine-induced lesions in tissues that contain lots of melanin, which are located in the eye, inner ear, and brain stem. This means they are at a higher risk of developing cancer and other huge health problems related to smoking.
All these discoveries have led scientists to assume that African-Americans and individuals from other ethnic groups are more than likely to become habitual smokers when they start smoking at an early age. They may also have a difficult time kicking their smoking habit in their adult years.
Most of these studies used cultured cells with melanocytes in them. If they did use a living being, the scientists chose to experiment on animals, which absorb nicotine and respond to the drug in different ways compared to humans.
The best thing that smokers can do no matter their ethnicity is to learn to control the amount of nicotine they’re absorbing through responsible vaping. They can do this until they finally eliminated their physical and psychological addiction to the drug.
Learn more about the dynamic interactions between nicotine and melanin in the body from these sources:
- Patterns: Skin Color May Affect Nicotine Storage : This New York Times article mentioned Gary King’s work. It was published online on May 18, 2009.
- Link between facultative melanin and tobacco use among African Americans : This is the research paper published by Gary King and his team in 2009.
- Racial Differences in Hair Nicotine Concentrations Among Smokers : This is supporting research done by Apelberg and his team in August 2012.