Massachusetts University researchers say that the symptoms of nicotine addiction can appear even when youth are smoking as little as one cigarette per month.
In a study, published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, the researchers found that 10 per cent of youth become addicted to nicotine within two days of first inhaling from a cigarette, and 25 per cent are addicted within a month.
The findings are contrary to the common belief that only people who normally smoke at least five cigarettes a day experience nicotine withdrawal symptoms-such as cravings, restlessness, irritability, and difficulty in concentrating.
During the study, 1,246 sixth-grade students in six Massachusetts communities were monitored for over four years. The students were interviewed frequently about smoking and symptoms of addiction.
The researchers noted that of the students who were hooked on cigarettes, half were already addicted by the time they were smoking seven cigarettes per month. Some youth found that they were unable to quit smoking after just a few cigarettes.
According to the study, the nicotine from one cigarette is enough to saturate the nicotine receptors in the human brain.
"Laboratory experiments confirm that nicotine alters the structure and function of the brain within a day of the very first dose. In humans, nicotine-induced alterations in the brain can trigger addiction with the first cigarette," commented lead researcher Dr. Joseph R. DiFranza, Professor of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
"Nobody expects to get addicted from smoking one cigarette," he added.
The researcher said that one cigarette relieves the craving produced by nicotine withdrawal for weeks at first, but as tolerance to nicotine builds, the smoker starts fagging more frequently to cope with the symptoms.
"While smoking one cigarette will keep withdrawal symptoms away for less than an hour in long-time smokers, novice smokers find that one cigarette suppresses withdrawal for weeks at a time," explained Dr. DiFranza.
"One dose of nicotine affects brain function long after the nicotine is gone from the body. The important lesson here is that youth have all the same symptoms of nicotine addiction as adults do, even though they may be smoking only a few cigarettes per month," he said.
He further said that the addiction-related changes in the brain that nicotine causes are permanent and remain years after a smoker has quit, which is why an ex-smoker who relapses after many years of abstinence cannot keep the craving away by smoking one cigarette per month.