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Young Smokers Become More Addicted

Posted - Sep. 17, 2003 at 4:24 p.m.



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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. _ No wonder those tobacco companies were targeting kids. Not only were the odds good that smokers who started young would remain lifelong lovers of nicotine, but recent research may show why.

The psychological addiction _ "don't I look cool" _ is probably accompanied by a physiological addiction that is far more deadly in adolescents than adults.

It's a brain thing.

"Early nicotine use may cause the wiring of the brain to proceed inappropriately," says Edward Levin, a researcher at Duke University's Nicotine Research Center.

"The brains of adolescents who use tobacco may be sculpted around an addiction to nicotine."

Levin's tests were done on rats, at the ages equivalent to both adolescence and adulthood. Rats who started consuming nicotine young self-administered the drug in larger quantities than those who started as adults. And they continued using more of the drug as adults than rats who started at a more advanced age.

Levin said he administered "entirely reasonable doses" to the rats, similar to what people would be using when they smoked.

And he explained that rats were possibly even more appropriate than humans for these tests. Humans may start smoking young because they have addictive personalities. Rats, apparently, do not have that personality trait.

Levin would like to follow this research with more on how nicotine impacts the older brain, maybe even getting into age-related societal decisions about why we think it's OK to let people have cigarettes at 18, but withhold that legal approval until 21 for alcohol.

In any case, recent figures show that every day in the United States, 6,000 young people start smoking, despite all the publicity about it being the leading preventable cause of lung cancer. Teens never think they will die, I guess, and have little sense of their own mortality.

But The American Academy of Pediatrics takes this subject very seriously.

Two years ago, it issued a policy statement saying that it's "critical for pediatricians to routinely inquire about tobacco use and smoke exposure. The AAP recommends that discussion and guidance about avoiding smoking and tobacco use should ideally begin by age 5 years."

Five-year-olds are old enough, the doctors say, to be taught the evils of demon nicotine.

And pediatricians should be armed with information about tobacco cessation therapies such as patches, "and routinely offer help and referral to those who are nicotine-dependent, including those who are recovering from alcohol and other drug dependence."

The current generation, thanks mostly to lawsuits, isn't going to be exposed to as much tobacco advertising as the previous, who saw it, heard it, and read it, on television, radio, magazines, and billboards.

Joe Camel is dead.

Based on current research, it seems likely that he was doomed as a teen.

Carolyn Susman writes for The Palm Beach Post. E-mail: carolyn_susma@bpost.com.

Cox News Service

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