Nicotine addiction can begin in days, study says
WORCESTER, Massachusetts (CNN) -- Dependency on nicotine can start even before smoking becomes a daily habit, according to new research.
"What we found is that kids are getting addicted to nicotine far more quickly than we ever thought possible," says Dr. Joseph DiFranza, a professor of family medicine and community health at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine. "We have a lot of kids who start smoking when they're 11 or 12 years old, and they're addicted within a few weeks."
Published in this month's issue of the British Medical Association journal Tobacco Control, the study followed more than 600 12- and 13-year-olds from seven schools in central Massachusetts for a four-year period.
"We were surprised to find that the children were experiencing the same symptoms of nicotine addiction as adults who smoked heavily -- even those kids who only smoked a few cigarettes a week," adds lead study author DiFranza. "This is particularly disturbing, given that each day, over 4,800 teens (in the United States) smoke their first cigarette. That's 1.7 million children annually."
Other studies indicate "these kids will take about 20 years on average to break this addiction," he continues, adding, "We need to take the problem with smoking and adolescents much more seriously than we have now."
Teenagers certainly seem to be serious about smoking, even though they also know the habit can injure their health. The American Cancer Society estimates that smoking is linked to 400,000 deaths in the United States every year.
"I've been smoking since I was 11," says one young man, explaining that he started smoking cigarettes because many of his friends also were smokers. "I, personally, can't go 20 minutes to a half-hour without one. Maybe even two."
Rebecca, 21, remembers hiding to smoke as a sixth-grader.
"Every time I stop, I get a pain in my heart right here, and I need a cigarette," she says, pointing to her chest. "And if I smoke too much, I get a headache."
Smoking is even more damaging to youngsters than it is to adults, because the body is still developing, according to DiFranza.
"These kids certainly need help with smoking cessation," he says. "It seems it's as difficult for an 11-year-old to quit a habit of two to three cigarettes a week as it is for an adult smoker who's smoking a pack a day."
In addition to difficulty in quitting, common symptoms of addiction include feelings of withdrawal such as cravings, anxiety, irritability and trouble concentrating, according to the Tobacco Control report.
Adolpho Arrastia, executive director of the Worcester Youth Center, sees youngsters smoking every day.
"They can't ... no sooner than they have done with a cigarette, they're asking their friends for another hit on a cigarette," says Arrastia. "It doesn't seem to matter how many programs we set up for them ... they seem to revert to that problem."
Other than the influence of friends, most say they started smoking because they thought it would help them to feel "in" and cool.
"I wanted to be part of the crew. I wanted to be down," says Chrissy Rivera, now 23. "I wanted to see how it was (and) ... I got addicted."
Rivera, who started smoking cigarettes at age 10, says her body "calls for" nicotine. "When you get stressed out, it's 'Oh, I need a cigarette,' " she adds.
"I wish I could turn back time and never even start," continues the woman. "I have 14- and 15-year-olds ask me for a cigarette, (but) I tell them no."
At 21, Rebecca believes it may already be too late for her.
"I'll probably die in another year if I keep smoking," she says.
CNN Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen contributed to this report.
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