How easy is it to get hooked on tobacco? Teenagers typically underestimate the addictive power of nicotine, partly because tobacco is a legal substance and is not perceived to be as dangerous as many illegal drugs. But a study conducted by Dr. Joseph DiFranza of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and an international team of researchers showed how dangerously addictive tobacco can be.
Their study, published in the September issue of Tobacco Control, involved 679 seventh-grade students who were interviewed repeatedly for 30 months. Of the 332 who tried cigarettes or other forms of tobacco, 40 percent showed some sign of addiction, including irritability, difficulty quitting and trouble concentrating without a cigarette.
Many of them had become addicted while smoking only a few cigarettes a day, some as few as two per week. "Some of these kids were hooked within a few days of starting to smoke," Dr. DiFranza reported. The experts had thought that young smokers became addicted only when they smoked 10 or more cigarettes a day. The report notes the average child smoker experiments with smoking at 11.7 years of age and begins smoking monthly at 12.8 years. A survey released Aug. 28 reported that worldwide 14 percent of 13- to 15-year-olds smoke, but two thirds of them already want to quit.
A major factor is their early exposure to secondhand smoke. Worldwide, 49 percent live with someone who smokes, and 60 percent are exposed to secondhand smoke during parts of the day. Studies have confirmed that children are readily influenced by the examples of parents, peers, teachers, movie stars and sports figures who smoke, as well as tobacco advertising. In many countries, tobacco companies still hand out free cigarettes to teenagers. Big tobacco knows how to secure its future sales.
"Women and Smoking: A Report of the Surgeon General—2001" relates the findings of a survey on smoking trends among thousands of American women since 1980. Disappointing and disturbing was the rise during the 1990s of smoking among young girls. Indeed, "much of the progress in reducing smoking prevalence among girls in the 1970s and 1980s was lost with the increase in prevalence in the 1990s," said the report.
Tobacco-company advertising expenditures soared from $4.9 billion in 1995 to $6.73 billion in 1998, with ads targeted at women "featuring slim, attractive, athletic models." Indeed, antismoking experts point out that many teenage girls start smoking with the hope that the habit will help them control their weight.
Most adults who are hooked on tobacco became addicted when they were teenagers. Studies have shown that it takes the average person who starts smoking as a teen 18 years to break the habit for good. All these findings show that antismoking programs should focus more on trying to prevent young people from starting to smoke, and to help those who are starting to stop before they become hopelessly addicted. GN