A new study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine shows that 10 percent of youth who become hooked on cigarettes are addicted within two days of first inhaling from a cigarette, and 25 percent are addicted within a month. The study found that adolescents who smoke even just a few cigarettes per month suffer withdrawal symptoms when deprived of nicotine, a startling finding that is contrary to long-held beliefs that only people with established smoking habits of at least five cigarettes per day experience such symptoms.
The study monitored 1,246 sixth-grade students in six Massachusetts communities over four years. Students were interviewed frequently about smoking and symptoms of addiction, such as difficulty quitting, strong urges to smoke, or nicotine withdrawal symptoms such as cravings, restlessness, irritability, and trouble concentrating. Of those who were hooked, half were already addicted by the time they were smoking seven cigarettes per month. As amazing as it may seem, some youth find they are unable to quit smoking after just a few cigarettes. This confirms an earlier study by the same researchers.
Recent research has revealed that the nicotine from one cigarette is enough to saturate the nicotine receptors in the human brain. "Laboratory experiments confirm that nicotine alters the structure and function of the brain within a day of the very first dose. In humans, nicotine-induced alterations in the brain can trigger addiction with the first cigarette," commented Joseph R. DiFranza, MD, professor of family medicine & community health at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and leader of the UMMS research team. "Nobody expects to get addicted from smoking one cigarette." Many smokers struggle for a lifetime trying to overcome nicotine addiction. The National Institutes of Health estimates that as many as 6.4 million children who are living today will die prematurely as adults because they began to smoke cigarettes during adolescence.
"While smoking one cigarette will keep withdrawal symptoms away for less than an hour in long-time smokers, novice smokers find that one cigarette suppresses withdrawal for weeks at a time," explained Dr. DiFranza. "One dose of nicotine affects brain function long after the nicotine is gone from the body. The important lesson here is that youth have all the same symptoms of nicotine addiction as adults do, even though they may be smoking only a few cigarettes per month."
Symptoms of nicotine addiction can appear when youth are smoking as little as one cigarette per month. At first, one cigarette will relieve the craving produced by nicotine withdrawal for weeks, but as tolerance to nicotine builds, the smoker finds that he or she must smoke ever more frequently to cope with withdrawal.
According to DiFranza, the addiction-related changes in the brain caused by nicotine are permanent and remain years after a smoker has quit. This explains why one cigarette can trigger an immediate relapse in an ex-smoker. It also explains why an ex-smoker who relapses after many years of abstinence cannot keep the craving away by smoking one cigarette per month. Unlike the newly addicted novice smoker, a newly relapsed smoker must smoke several cigarettes each day to cope with the craving.
The study was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and appears in the July issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. According to the National Institutes of Health, smoking remains the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, accounting for approximately 440,000 deaths annually.
DiFranza worked on this study with UMMS colleagues Judith K. Ockene, PhD, Judith A. Savageau, MPH, Kenneth Fletcher, PhD, Lori Pbert, PhD, Jennifer Hazelton, BA, Karen Friedman, BA, Gretchen Dussault, BA, and Connie Wood, MSW; Jennifer O'Loughlin, PhD, of McGill University; Ann D. McNeill, PhD, of St. George's Hospital Medical School at the University of London; and Robert J. Wellman of both UMMS and Fitchburg State College.
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