Over two-thirds of people who try their first cigarette go on to become daily smokers, at least temporarily, a study suggests.
The finding from over 215,000 survey respondents provides strong support for prioritising efforts to reduce cigarette experimentation among adolescents, researchers 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," said Professor Peter Hajek from Queen Mary University of London in the UK.
"In the development of any addictive behaviour, the move from experimentation to daily practice is an important landmark, as it implies that a recreational activity is turning into a compulsive need," said Hajek, who led the study published in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research.
"We have 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 said.
The team calculated that 60.3 per cent of respondents had said they had ever tried a cigarette, and among those, an estimated 68.9 per cent said they had progressed to daily smoking.
Given the high conversion rate found in all existing surveys, the researchers suggest that at least some of the reduction in smoking prevalence observed over the past 20 years is likely due to reduced experimentation with cigarettes among adolescents.
"Concerns were expressed that e-cigarettes could be as addictive as conventional cigarettes, but this has not been the case," Hajek added.
"It is striking that very few non-smokers who try e- cigarettes become daily vapers, while such a large proportion on non-smokers who try conventional cigarettes become daily smokers. The presence of nicotine is clearly not the whole story," he said.
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