In 2010, about 2.6 million American adolescents (aged 12–17) reported using a tobacco product in the month prior to the survey. In that same year it was found that nearly 60 percent of new smokers were under the age of 18 when they first smoked a cigarette. Of smokers under age 18, more than 6 million will likely die prematurely from a smoking-related disease.
Tobacco use in teens is not only the result of psychosocial influences, such as peer pressure; recent research suggests that there may be biological reasons for this period of increased vulnerability. There is some evidence that intermittent smoking can result in the development of tobacco addiction in some teens. Animal models of teen smoking provide additional evidence of an increased vulnerability. Adolescent rats are more susceptible to the reinforcing effects of nicotine than adult rats, and take more nicotine when it is available than do adult animals.
Adolescents may also be more sensitive to the reinforcing effects of nicotine in combination with other chemicals found in cigarettes, thus increasing susceptibility to tobacco addiction. As mentioned earlier, acetaldehyde increases nicotine’s addictive properties in adolescent, but not adult, animals. A recent study also suggests that specific genes may increase risk for addiction among people who begin smoking during adolescence. NIDA continues to actively support research aimed at increasing our understanding of why and how adolescents become addicted, and to develop prevention and treatment strategies to meet their specific needs.
This series of reports simplifies the science of research findings for the educated lay public, legislators, educational groups, and practitioners. The series reports on research findings of national interest.
As a result of scientific research, we know that addiction is a disease that affects both brain and behavior.