A new study shows that athletes are increasingly turning to a familiar drug to gain a competitive advantage: nicotine.
The study found that in some team sports, up to half of the players are using nicotine, although a literature review shows little evidence that nic improves performance. The author, Toby Mündel of Massey University in New Zealand, estimates that somewhere between a third and half of all serious athletes are using nicotine.
Baseball fans are familiar with players that use various forms of smokeless tobacco, despite the recent efforts by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and their allies to promote bans in stadiums. Several U.S. cities have laws that theoretically prevent ballplayers from using tobacco in the parks, including New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
Despite that, CTFK estimated last year that between 25 and 30 percent of major league players continue to use smokeless. After all, smokeless tobacco is fairly easy to hide. The rules are mostly unenforceable. And according to Mündel, other sports are no less nic-happy than baseball.
The author says that 30-50 percent of pro hockey players use nicotine too. Many of the players from Scandanavian countries use Swedish snus. Others use nicotine replacement therapy products (NRT) like nicotine gum, patches, nasal sprays, or lozenges. Other sports with unusually high rates of nicotine use are (American) football, rugby, skiing, and gymnastics.
Players say that nicotine prevents dry mouth, helps control weight, improves reaction time, and aids focus and concentration. Two of the studies Mündel reviewed found that it improved exercise endurance and muscular strength. Athletes report typical side effects from nic use: coughing, sneezing, sore throat, increased heart rate, nausea and dizziness. Nicotine has long been known for its cognitive benefits and mild side effects.
“There is substantial evidence that stimulation of nicotinic receptors in the brain improves cognitive performance, awareness and memory, “ wrote Prof. Bernd Mayer of the University of Graz in Austria. “Thus, synthetic nicotinic receptor agonists are potentially interesting drugs for the treatment of cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s Disease.”
The World Anti-Doping Agency added nicotine to its monitoring program in 2012, looking for “patterns of misuse,” to determine if they would upgrade it to the List of Prohibited Substances. That hasn’t yet happened though.