Young smokers hooked in few weeks, study says
Adolescents can become addicted to cigarettes in as little as a few weeks by taking just a few draws on a cigarette every other day, according to new research from the University of Massachusetts that demonstrates how quickly nicotine cravings can foster
Dr. Joseph R. DiFranza, the University of Massachusetts medical school professor who directed research that appears in this month's issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, recalls performing a physical exam on a 14-year-old girl who had begun smoking at the start of summer.
''I told her, `You should quit before you get hooked.' And she said, `It's too late,''' said DiFranza, a family medicine specialist at UMass Memorial Healthcare hospital in Worcester. ''It hadn't even been two months, and she had already tried to quit and wasn't successful. We found that her experience was not unusual.''
To help adolescents recognize when they have a cigarette addiction, DiFranza and his Worcester research team created the 10-point Hooked on Nicotine Checklist, which asks about cravings, the inability to stop smoking, and behavior changes. DiFranza said he hopes the survey will turn up on the pages of teen magazines such as Seventeen.
The researchers discovered that if teens answer even one of the questions affirmatively, they're already addicted and will find it difficult to kick the habit.
''We were quite shocked ourselves,'' DiFranza said. ''We thought that the kids that were developing symptoms so quickly were going to be the extreme examples. The opposite turned out to be true; kids that were developing symptoms of addiction within a few weeks of starting smoking were the rule rather than exception.''
The UMass team is completing the data on precisely how long it takes for adolescents to become addicted and expects to release those findings in a few months. The researchers tracked 679 seventh-graders for 21/2 years, conducting eight interviews with each of them.
The study published in the pediatric medical journal reports that, compared with other smokers, youths with at least one of the checklist symptoms were 29 times more likely to fail in efforts to quit, 44 times more likely to still be smoking at the end of the study, and 58 times more likely to have progressed to smoking every day.
The director of the Massachusetts crusade to stop children from smoking said the study demonstrates powerfully the importance of tailoring prevention campaigns to adolescents. In television advertisements, the state's Tobacco Control Program has aimed to persuade youths that smoking translates into giving up control.
''The last thing a 13-year-old wants to think about is some tobacco company controlling their behavior, so we get them to rebel against a tobacco company instead of a teacher or a parent,'' said Gregory Connolly, director of the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program at the state Department of Public Health. ''We've got to identify the high-risk kids and intervene.''
The need for that type of intervention was indicated in 1993, when state researchers discerned a surge in smoking among middle school students. The durability of the habit was evident in 1996, when an upswing was reported among high school students, essentially, the same group that had started smoking three years earlier. There was proof again last year, when that cadre of smokers reached adulthood; in 2001, more people between 18 and 24 smoked than any other age group.
''It was the Joe Camel and Marlboro days when they started smoking, and it was when smoking came back into Hollywood,'' Connolly said. ''We're still paying that price.''