A new study about nicotine addiction risk demonstrates, for the first time ever, that nicotine may function as a “reinforcer” even for those who have never before smoked. This means that some first-time smokers may be more vulnerable to nicotine addiction than others, likely as a result of genetic or other biological factors, and solves a persistent question about the genesis of nicotine addiction: Why, when so many first-time smokers initially dislike the experience, do people become addicted to cigarettes?

According to Roland Griffiths, a professor and addiction researcher at Johns Hopkins:

From an addiction point of view, nicotine is a very unusual drug. When you give people nicotine for the first time, most people don’t like it. It’s different from many other addictive drugs, for which most people say they enjoy the first experience and would try it again.
In a double-blind study, about half the participants chose to continue taking a pill containing a very low dose of nicotine. The other half chose to take a placebo instead, explaining that the nicotine pill—though they were not aware of its contents—made them feel unwell. The participants who chose the nicotine pill explained, conversely, that they enjoyed effects like increased energy. Griffiths believes that this research may be foundational in beginning to understand the differences in brain chemistry between those who choose to continue smoking and those who avoid it. Smoking, like any other addiction, may affect all kinds of people, but there are clearly some that are more susceptible than others—and this study could help us more effectively identify and treat that part of the population.

For people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, the dangers of cigarette smoking can be easy to underestimate; many believe that smoking is less unhealthy than drinking and other drugs. A sobering fact from the Department of Health and Human Services debunks that idea entirely: “Smoking tobacco causes more deaths among clients in substance abuse treatment than the alcohol or drug use that brings them to treatment.”

There is also some evidence that quitting smoking actually makes it easier to quit drinking. Clearly, the rationalizations of chain-smoking recovering addicts are just that: smoke and mirrors.

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