Tobacco has always been said to be a gateway into heavier alcohol, drug, and substance use among teens. This was proven in 2007 when a study at Columbia University found that the nicotine in tobacco products poses a significant risk of structural and chemical changes in developing brains. These changes actually put teens at greater risk of developing addictions to alcohol and drugs.
In 2015, 25% of high school and 7.7% of middle school students reported using a tobacco product in the past 30 days. Analysis from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) shows that teens who smoke are 9 times more likely to meet the medical criteria for alcohol abuse and dependence. Teens who smoke are also 13 times more likely to meet the criteria for illegal drug abuse and dependence, than teens who do not smoke.
Both alcohol and drug abuse in the teenage years can significantly affect brain development. We now know that nicotine does this too. Nicotine, being a highly addictive chemical, wires the brain to rely on outside substances to function. This is true in the case of traditional cigarettes and e-cigarettes alike.
Teen Smoking’s Effect on Drug and Alcohol Abuse & Mental Health
12 to 17 year-olds who smoke are 5 times likelier to drink and 13 times likelier to use marijuana compared to non-smokers of the same age group. These odds increase the younger a person starts smoking. For example, children who began smoking at age 12 or younger are 15 times more likely to smoke marijuana and 7 times more likely to use illegal drugs like heroin and cocaine.
Smoking at a young age can also have significant effects on mental health. Teen tobacco use is linked to panic attacks, general anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Among teens aged 12 to 17, smokers were twice as likely to suffer from symptoms of depression than non-smokers.
Prevalence of Teen Vaping
Vaping has taken over smoking among American teenagers. As of 2015, e-cigarettes are the most common tobacco product used among middle and high school students. Vaping and e-cigarettes can cause serious health concerns of their own, in addition to the effects nicotine has on the developing brain. These products merit the same caution as traditional tobacco products.
Teen Smoking Effect on Adult Addiction
Estimates suggest that 80% of smokers take up the habit before the age of 18. This is when it is most dangerous as their developing brains are more susceptible to the effects of nicotine. We also know that long-term smoking carries with it numerous health risks which can result in cancer, lung disease, heart disease, and even death. Having so many people start a life-threatening, highly addictive habit in their youth creates long-term problems that young people rarely consider. It also creates a significant strain on our healthcare system. Furthermore, because early smoking creates a higher likelihood of alcohol and drug addiction, the cascade effect can be significant.
How Can We Prevent Teen Tobacco Use?
Experts recommend restricting tobacco advertising, marketing, and promotion, increasing counter-advertising programs, and giving the FDA comprehensive authority to regulate tobacco. Furthermore, having conversations in the home with children and teens about the risks of tobacco use.