The basic difference between nicotine and tobacco is that nicotine is a chemical contained in tobacco and tobacco is the actual cured leaves of the plant Nicotiana tabacum. They’re closely linked because nicotine is the main psychoactive ingredient in tobacco, and people may mistakenly think they are the same thing for that reason.
Tobacco is the cured, dried leaves from the plant N. tabacum (for most commercial tobacco) or N. rustica (in other parts of the world such as Vietnam), which is the main ingredient in cigarettes, chewing tobacco, snuff and snus (in powdered form), pipe tobacco, cigars and shisha tobacco.
Inhaling the smoke from combusted tobacco carries significant health risks, including causing lung cancer (and many other cancers), coronary heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and increasing the risk of many other conditions. Smoke produced from tobacco contains around 70 carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals).
Nicotine is a chemical found in tobacco leaves, and is an oily, colorless liquid in pure form. The nicotine content of tobacco ranges from 0.2 to around 5 percent of the total weight for N. tabacum and up to 7 percent or higher for N. rustica. Nicotine is also present in many other plants within the nightshade (Solanaceae) family, including tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant (in much smaller quantitites: eggplant has the highest nicotine content of these, but this is just 0.00001 percent by weight).
Nicotine is used in several different products, including e-liquids and nicotine patches, gums, inhalers or lozenges. Although nicotine is a key addictive chemical in tobacco, it’s considered less addictive than tobacco when taken alone because it lacks monoamine oxidase inhibitors and other chemicals that contribute to the development of addiction.
The health risks of nicotine outside of tobacco are very minor, with no known risk of cancer and only minimal cardiovascular risks (effects on the heart and blood vessels) – particularly in comparison to smoking.