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Preteens Are Quick Nicotine Addicts

Girls Even More Susceptible Than Boys

WebMD Health News

Aug. 30, 2002 - Preteens can become addicted to nicotine in a short amount of time -- much sooner than ever thought possible, say researchers.

"Some of these kids were hooked within a few days of starting to smoke," researcher Joseph R. DiFranza, MD, with the University of Massachusetts Medical School, says in a news release.

In his study, DiFranza and colleagues followed about 700 seventh graders for 30 months. Each student was interviewed eight times in the course of the study.

Among students who had smoked as little as one puff, 40% had symptoms of addiction. The frequency of addiction symptoms jumped to 53% among students who had inhaled.

And girls were even more sensitive to the addictive effects of nicotine. Though half of the boys were hooked within six months of starting smoking, it took only an average of three weeks for teenage girls.

Also surprising in the study was the small amount of tobacco required to hook the youths. Students who showed symptoms of addiction smoked, on average, only two cigarettes per week. One theory that may explain why adolescents are so prone to addiction is that their brains are still developing and thus are more vulnerable to the effects of nicotine. The effects are also stronger and last longer.

The researchers coined the term "juvenile onset nicotine dependence" to describe the sensitivity that young brains have to nicotine's addictive effects.

"An estimated 32% of all young smokers ultimately die prematurely as a result of their tobacco use," says DiFranza. "For some victims of tobacco, their unfortunate fates may have been cast with their first few cigarettes."

The study appears in the September issue of Tobacco Control.

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