Both governments and health professionals have spent decades working on strategies to reduce the number of people becoming addicted to nicotine. Now a new study, which has been published in “Nicotine and Tobacco Research”, has shown that just one cigarette could lead to people becoming regular smokers – leading to massive health, financial and environmental implications.

The data was taken from surveys conducted between 2000 and 2017, and included over 216,000 participants from the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand. During the study, researchers found that just over 60% of the adult population surveyed had tried at least one cigarette during their lifetime, and that 69% of them went on to become regular smokers who used tobacco products on a daily basis.

Peter Hajek, co-author of the research, from Queen Mary University of London said “This is the first time that the remarkable hold that cigarettes can establish after a single experience has been documented from such a large set of data. [This shows] prevention, providing [fewer] opportunities or reasons for young people to try a cigarette, is a good idea. We’ve found that the conversion rate from ‘first-time smoker’ to ‘daily smoker’ is surprisingly high, which helps confirm the importance of preventing cigarette experimentation in the first place.

He added that e-cigarettes could be used effectively as a harm reduction strategy, as far fewer non smokers who use them seem to become addicted. He said “Concerns were expressed that e-cigarettes could be as addictive as conventional cigarettes, but this has not been the case. It is striking that very few non-smokers who try e-cigarettes become daily vapers, while such a large proportion of non-smokers who try conventional cigarettes become daily smokers. The presence of nicotine is clearly not the whole story.”

Researchers went on to consider the possible limitations to this study, which included the possibility that smokers may be less likely to respond to this type of survey; although it was noted that a strong correlation wasn’t found. However, when looking at the data it’s important to remember that it’s based on self reported information from the public – meaning that the results aren’t necessarily 100% accurate.

 “It is possible that somebody who is a lifetime non-smoker did try a cigarette when they were a kid but it didn’t make any impression on them, and they forgot it or don’t see that it is important enough to report,” said Hajek. But, he added, “I think even if you assume there is a recall issue and other things, you are talking about more than a 50% [conversion rate from trying a cigarette to daily smoking].”

Linda Bauld, professor of health policy at the University of Stirling also commented that this study is strong evidence that measures need to be put in place to prevent individuals from taking up smoking in the first place. She said “Tobacco use starts in childhood for two-thirds of smokers in the UK, and this study suggests that even trying a cigarette becomes regular use in most cases. Fortunately, in the UK, youth smoking rates continue to decline – but we shouldn’t be complacent.”

She added “We need to be clear about this distinction and keep our focus on doing everything we can to prevent smoking, which we know is deadly, rather than demonising vaping, which all the evidence suggests is a hugely less harmful behaviour. UK is seeing a dramatic reduction in smoking at the moment and this tallies with recent findings that only 19% of 11 to 15-year-olds have ever tried a cigarette, so the good news is that we are on the right track.”

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