Can people become addicted to smoking cigars?

Why smoking is addicting so quickly

Usually a single cigarette is enough and the foundation for addiction is laid. How does a tobacco addiction actually arise? And why does it happen so quickly?

Image: David-W /

There is a well-known saying that once is never. But when you smoke it can be too much. It may be difficult for one or the other to imagine that just one cigarette is addictive. But research shows that out of three people who try a cigarette for the first time, two will later smoke every day.

This is the assessment made by study leader Joanna Miler and her team in a recently published meta-analysis. The research team has summarized all representative surveys from English-speaking countries, which contained information on the following two questions: Have you ever tried a cigarette? Have you ever smoked every day?

Seven individual studies were combined. The total sample comprised over 200,000 people. In the individual studies, the lowest rate of people who developed into daily smokers after their first cigarette was 50 percent, the highest was 82 percent. On average, 69 percent of all people who have ever tried a cigarette later switch to a daily consumption pattern. Cigarettes therefore have a very high potential for dependence. Why is that?

The earlier you start, the higher the risk of addiction

The fact is that most smokers were adolescents when they first cigarette. And research has shown that the younger smokers are when they smoke for the first time, the greater the likelihood of addiction. A study from the USA, in which 244 identical twins participated, provides evidence of this.

What was special about the twin sample was that one of the two twins had started smoking an average of four to five years before the brother or sister. All participants completed questionnaires with which the strength of nicotine dependence can be measured. It was found that the early entrants among the twins had a significantly stronger desire for cigarettes than their siblings. Study leader Kenneth Kendler and his team therefore assume that nicotine has a direct influence on the brain development of adolescents.

Brain development influenced by smoking

Because during puberty there is a fundamental remodeling of the brain. New nerve connections are established and those that are no longer needed are broken down. Similar to a footprint on freshly poured asphalt, experiences in this phase can have a formative influence on the brain structure. Smoking seems to be such a formative experience.

For example, a research team from the University of California in the USA was able to use magnetic resonance imaging to show that a certain region of the brain is thinner in young people who smoke than in those who do not smoke. The brain region known as the island cortex was thinner the more the adolescents smoked.

The islet cortex is considered to be an important part of the brain in decision-making. The neuro-biological changes could thus contribute to the development of nicotine addiction, explains the research team. Because whether someone smokes or not is also a question of how that person decides.

Stronger reward experience in adolescents

Adolescents are also likely to react differently to cigarettes than adults. According to studies, the active ingredient nicotine leads to a stronger activation of the reward center in adolescents than in adults.

In the brain, nicotine binds to so-called nicotinergic receptors, which has a kind of domino effect. Various neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine, dopamine and serotonin are increasingly released. Neurotransmitters create chemical connections between nerve cells and thus guarantee the transmission of electrical stimuli.

The dopamine system in particular is being fundamentally reorganized in youth. Dopamine is a central component of the reward system and is increasingly released during particularly tasty food, through drugs or when playing computer games. Research has shown that receptors to which dopamine binds are more sensitive to nicotine in adolescents than in adults. As a result, adolescents experience a more rewarding effect from nicotine than adults. This also means: they develop a tobacco addiction more quickly.

An animal study with adolescent rats also indicates that nicotine may cause permanent changes. It has been shown that nicotine influences nerve growth in a region in which dopamine is particularly important.

These nerve changes were still present in the rats three weeks after the nicotine administration. The research team concludes that nicotine could lead to permanent brain changes in the adolescent brain. These changes could ultimately be the basis for a development of dependency.

Teenagers underestimate nicotine addiction

Most young people should also be aware that cigarettes can be addictive. Another study from the USA, however, raises doubts as to whether adolescents are actually aware of what it means to be dependent.

In the study, 367 young people were asked what dependence means for them. As it turned out, many of the 15-year-olds on average had no clear idea of ‚Äč‚Äčthis. They were aware that addiction is related to the compulsive behavior of having to smoke a cigarette every now and then. However, they often did not associate addiction with difficulty in quitting smoking.

When asked about their personal smoking habits, they were often of the opinion that addiction was behavior that they could turn off at will. Many young people who smoke answered yes to the question of whether they would describe themselves as dependent, but at the same time they believed they could stop at any time.

However, it is in the nature of a dependency that you can no longer fully control your own consumer behavior. In technical jargon, this is known as loss of control. Loss of control is most noticeable when the person tries to give up cigarettes. Dependent smokers then usually feel a strong craving for cigarettes.

Early addiction symptoms in adolescents

In adolescents, this desire can be felt at an early age. Researcher Lisa Dierker and her team asked young people, for example, whether they would run through pouring rain to get a cigarette or whether they craved cigarettes after a few hours.

At the time of the first survey, the young people were in grades 9 and 10. Six years later, at an average age of 21, their smoking habits were re-examined and compared with their previous responses. The result: Adolescents who showed symptoms of addiction early on were more likely to be daily smokers six years later.


Even the first cigarette can lay the foundation for nicotine addiction. About two in three people who puff on a cigarette for the first time later smoke daily. The high potential for dependence on nicotine mainly affects adolescents. Because they are in a critical phase of brain development.

For one thing, teenagers respond more strongly to the rewarding effects of nicotine than adults. On the other hand, nicotine probably has a formative influence on brain development. As a consequence, young people are particularly at risk of developing nicotine addiction when they try cigarettes or e-cigarettes.


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