Nicotine is a highly addictive substance in cigarettes that makes it difficult for many to quit smoking. About 40 years ago, 40% of Americans smoked. Today 20% still do but recent research may indicate why it is harder for those who have darker colored skin, such as African Americans, to kick the habit.
Dr. Gary King, a biobehavioral researcher from Pennsylvania State University, has found a connection between nicotine and melanin, the substance responsible for giving skin and hair its color. People who have darker colored skin, produce more melanin than lighter skinned individuals. “We have found that the concentration of melanin is directly related to the number of cigarettes smoked daily, nicotine dependence and nicotine exposure among African Americans,” Dr. King reported.
One question that motivated Dr. King to pursue this research is that past studies have shown African Americans have lower smoking cessation rates than white Americans despite the fact that African Americans smoke less than whites or other ethnic groups. Based on Dr. King’s study, it was determined that nicotine binds to melanin. Since darker skinned individuals possess more melanin, they retain greater levels of nicotine in their body tissues making their addiction to nicotine much higher. In turn, they have more difficulty quitting smoking.
The study only tested 150 participants from surrounding areas of Pennsylvania State University. African Americans were selected because as an ethnic group, they have the greatest range of melanin concentrations in their skin. Nicotine levels were tracked by measuring cotinine levels, a byproduct of nicotine metabolism, which were compared with a special measurement that combines the amount of melanin that genetically occurs in the skin with melanin that occurs in response to tanning from the sun. Other variables analyzed were: number of cigarettes smoked a day, the score from a nicotine dependence questionnaire, age, education and social demographics.
Dr. King expressed that this is only preliminary research but it opens the door to a number of health related implications.