Bet You Can't Smoke Just One


Michael Siegel notes that several news outlets have added tobacco to the list of instantaneously addictive drugs, along with heroin, crack, and methamphetamine. A study of British teenagers in the current issue of Tobacco Control generated headlines like "1 Cigarette May Hook Teens on Smoking" (Web MD); "One Cigarette Means Three-Year Cravings" (ITV); and "Just One Cigarette in Childhood Can Lead to Later Addiction, Study Says" (The Guardian). What the study actually found was that "students who at age 11 reported having tried smoking cigarettes just once…, but were not smoking at the time, were more likely to take up smoking at a later age than those that had not tried smoking…, even after a gap of up to three years of not smoking." As Siegel points out, there are various possible explanations for that finding that do not involve the sort of immediate-yet-delayed enchantment suggested by the alarming headlines. The same factors that lead a kid to try cigarettes at an early age–e.g., rebelliousness, a sensation-seeking personality, peers who smoke–may also make him more likely to become a regular smoker later on.

Siegel seems puzzled by the inaccurate coverage, saying, "The study itself certainly did not conclude that trying a single cigarette causes addiction that lies dormant for years." True enough, but it's easy to see how reporters got that impression. The title of the paper is "Vulnerability to Smoking After Trying a Single Cigarette Can Lie Dormant for Three Years or More," and the abstract says "preventing children from trying even one cigarette may be important." Given the familiar template of powerful chemicals that instantly enslave anyone foolish enough to try them even once, it would have been surprising if the news media hadn't drawn the conclusion they did.