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If nicotine is a stimulant, why does it seem to calm people?

Dear Cecil:

What's the Straight Dope on nicotine? I know for a fact that nicotine is a stimulant, yet smoking seems to calm people. Can you explain this paradox?

A reader, Chicago

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Cecil replies:

Give me a running start and enough Old Style, pal, and I can explain anything. It’s pretty generally agreed that smoking is mildly addictive, at least for some people, and that the anxiety smokers feel when they’re deprived of weed is actually drug withdrawal. Naturally, as soon as you light up, the symptoms disappear. A study by Columbia University researchers some years ago indicated that the craving for nicotine is related to acid levels in the urine–the more acid, the more you want to smoke. Moreover, stress seemed to make the urine even more acidic, causing you to want to smoke all the more. It was therefore suggested that smokers who are trying to cut down stoke up on acid-killers like bicarbonate of soda or Alka-Seltzer, particularly when they anticipate stressful situations, and at the same time avoid acidic substances like orange juice. I guarantee nothing, you understand, but it’s worth a shot.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.