How many cigarettes does it take to become addicted?
Only 35 years ago, pioneering health scientists identified smoking as an addiction, and it was only as recently as 20 years ago was there scientific consensus in the public health community that tobacco smoking is typically an addiction to nicotine just like heroin addiction. (Of course the tobacco industry knew this long before). In those early days it was thought that heavy “chain smokers” were addicted, whereas light or occasional smokers were not. However, over time, studies began to reveal that even very young smokers were absorbing significant amounts of nicotine per cigarette. One of the pioneering researchers, Professor Michael Russell (also one of my PhD supervisors), stated in 1990 that, “Over 90% of teenagers who smoke 3-4 cigarettes are trapped into a career of regular smoking which typically lasts for some 30-40 years.” At that time this was quite startling news. However, while that claim was based on evidence that 4 cigarettes predict FUTURE addiction, studies by Professor Joseph DiFranza at University of Massachusetts were beginning to show that adolescents were experiencing symptoms of addiction (e.g. craving) within a few weeks of their first cigarette. This month DiFranza and colleagues published another study of the development of tobacco addiction in adolescents. This study showed that adolescents experience symptoms of nicotine withdrawal and failed quit attempts even before they have progressed to daily smokers. Some young people report loss of control of their smoking within a day or two of smoking their first cigarette. Given that it may take only a few puffs on a cigarette to initiate the development of addiction, it seems appropriate to provide young people with clearer warnings about the addictiveness of cigarettes. It also suggests that young people, including those who are not yet daily smokers, may benefit from support in their quit attempts. Of course, if you are concerned about your kids getting hooked on tobacco, then probably the best thing you can do to reduce that risk is to not smoke yourself.