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Can One Cigarette in Adolescence Lead to Substance Abuse?

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Does Nicotine Use Lead to Substance Abuse?

Cigarette sales in the United States have declined to the lowest they have been in 50 years; however, doctors and parents are now working to figure out the problem that took its place: electronic cigarettes.

Just like regular cigarettes, e-cigarettes contain nicotine, an addictive chemical that targets the brain.

Electronic cigarettes, such as vapor products or JUUL’s, were originally introduced to the market as a good way to help with smoking cessation among current smokers. Yet, the lack of federal regulations, the appealing flavors, like cotton candy or blueberry muffin, mixed with the misconception that these products are less harmful than regular cigarettes, have led to a rise in their use among U.S. adolescents and non-smoking adults.

Electronic cigarettes may not seem like a huge problem, however the U.S. Surgeon General, Jerome Adams, recently declared e-cigarettes an epidemic among youth. Adams stressed that e-cigarettes containing nicotine increase the risk of addiction to nicotine and other drugs, and impact brain development which can induce mood disorders and lower impulse control.

New research led by Dr. Bader Chaarani has found that adolescents who smoked only a few cigarettes had smaller and less connected brain areas than their peers who never smoked. This could mean that adolescent smokers’ brains will develop and function differently, which may affect decision-making and self-control long into adulthood.

The new research by Dr. Chaarani looks at the brains of adolescent light smokers as well as heavier smokers to help paint a better picture of what actually happens to the brain after we begin smoking. Shockingly, they found that just a couple of cigarette puffs can alter the development of the adolescent brain.

Smoking and vaping both can negatively affect the way the brain works, and in some cases can be the catalyst for substance abuse issues in adolescence and young adults.

The research team studied over 600 14-year-old adolescents and calculated a cigarette-smoking score based on how many times they had smoked cigarettes. Participants ranged from young people who had never smoked to those who have smoked more than 40 times. It was important to study adolescents that smoke and don’t smoke to be able to see the different brain imaging. Adolescents brains are still developing throughout the first three decades of their lives.

During adolescence the brain circuits are being remodeled, especially those involved in reward function (dopamine) and cognitive function. Therefore, adolescent nicotine use can alter how the brain is wired, making young people more vulnerable to future addictions and impulse control problems.

This all brings us back to the question, “What causes addiction? What is the gateway drug?” For a long time, alcohol or marijuana were considered the catalyst of addiction in young people. However, research is suggesting that it could actually be smoking cigarettes as an adolescent!

This may seem like it’s not a huge deal, since less kids are starting smoking, but what about vapes and JUULs. One in five U.S. high school students and one in 20 middle school students currently use e-cigarettes.

The problem of nicotine use in adolescent is going to go away, which is why it’s important to speak to children and young adults about the dangerous side of using nicotine and other substances. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, call or chat with an admissions specialist 24/7.