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New Study Indicates Youth Smokers Become Quickly Addicted to Nicotine

Study Underscores Need for States to Fund Prevention Programs and Increase Cigarette Taxes
August 28, 2002

Washington, DC — A study published today in the international journal Tobacco Control presents powerful new evidence that adolescent smokers become addicted to nicotine much faster and while smoking far fewer cigarettes than previously thought.

The study found that, among adolescent smokers displaying symptoms of nicotine addiction such as difficulty quitting and cravings for cigarettes, half these young smokers displayed such symptoms within two months of when they started to smoke occasionally (at least once a month). Thirty-three percent reported symptoms of addiction when smoking at a rate of only one day a month, 49 percent by the time they were smoking one day a week, and 70 percent before they became daily smokers.

'This study shows that, far from being a harmless rite of passage for teens, cigarette smoking can be highly addictive at a very early stage and lead to a lifetime of health problems and premature death,' said William V. Corr, Executive Vice President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

'This study is powerful evidence that the best way to protect our kids from the dangers of tobacco is to prevent them from ever starting to smoke. We know that cigarette tax increases and comprehensive tobacco prevention programs work to reduce youth tobacco use. This new study is a wake-up call for elected officials that our kids are getting addicted more quickly than we thought and they must act quickly to protect them,' Corr said.

The study was funded by the National Cancer Institute and conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the Harvard Medical School, and the University of London. The study involved 679 Massachusetts adolescents who were interviewed eight times over 30 months between January 1998, when they were in the seventh grade, and June 2000. Among 332 youths in the study who had ever used tobacco, 40 percent reported symptoms of addiction.

Subjects were interviewed about their tobacco use and, in the case of smokers, about the first occurrence of 11 symptoms of nicotine dependence.

In addition to their findings about the speed with which symptoms of addiction appeared and the small amount of tobacco required, the researchers also found that girls displayed these symptoms much faster than boys. Girls with symptoms of addiction displayed these symptoms on average within three weeks of when they started to smoke occasionally, while the average for boys was six months. The lead researcher, Joseph R. DiFranza, MD, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, said the researchers were unable to explain why girls exhibited symptoms of addiction faster, but have begun a new study sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse to explore these gender differences.

Analyzing their overall findings, the researchers write, 'Brain development continues into adolescence, and perhaps because of this, the adolescent brain appears to be more vulnerable to nicotine.'

Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, killing more than 400,000 people every year. Ninety percent of smokers start at or before age 18. Every day, 5,000 kids try their first cigarette. Another 2,000 kids become daily smokers, one-third of whom will die prematurely as a result.

View the full study