THURSDAY, May 25, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Children who light up just once are twice as likely to become steady smokers later.
British researchers report that, among 11-year-olds, the desire to smoke can lie dormant for more than three years after trying just one cigarette.
The researchers call this a "sleeper effect," and it doubles the risk that a child who smokes just one cigarette will become a regular smoker, according to their report in the July issue of Tobacco Control.
"Although it is known that past smoking behavior is associated with future smoking, this is the first time that a period of 'dormant vulnerability' has been shown, whereby smoking a single cigarette can leave children susceptible to smoking uptake for several years," said lead researcher Jennifer Fidler, a research psychologist at University College London's Department of Epidemiology and Public Health.
The findings come as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that almost two in 10 (17.3 percent) of children ages 13 to 15 worldwide use tobacco products. Tobacco use is highest in North America and Europe, and lowest in Southeast Asian and western Pacific regions, the report said.
In their study, Fidler and her colleagues collected data on 5,863 children aged 11 to 16 years old from schools in South London who participated in annual surveys. The researchers also had measurements of salivary cotinine, which is an indicator of nicotine intake. For a five-year period, full smoking data was available for 35 percent of the children.
By age 14, students who had tried smoking just once at age 11 were twice as likely to have become regular smokers as children who had not tried smoking, the researchers found.
"This was despite a gap of up to three years, when no further smoking occurred," Fidler said.
The findings weren't influenced by gender, ethnicity and economic status. They also held up after the researchers took into account whether parents smoked or whether the child was rebellious.
"Preventing children from trying even one cigarette may therefore appear an important goal," Fidler said.
Fidler also thinks health experts need to consider these findings when planning how best to keep children from smoking.
"Another implication is that health-care providers and those designing interventions should not ignore adolescents who appear to be long-term nonsmokers but had tried smoking once several years ago," Fidler said. "These children are at an increased risk of taking up smoking, and may be missed in targeted interventions."
Danny McGoldrick, vice president for research at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said he found the findings surprising, and they need to be considered when creating programs to prevent children from smoking.
"This study is striking," he said. "It points to the need for tobacco prevention. If we can stop kids from ever trying a cigarette, then it is much more likely that they will never smoke."
McGoldrick added that there's a need for more comprehensive smoking-prevention programs. "We know that these are effective in reducing tobacco use among kids, but only if we fund it and sustain them over time," he said.
In the United States, about 4,000 children try their first cigarette each day, McGoldrick said.
McGoldrick believes programs directed at kids, coupled with higher cigarette taxes, will help dissuade children from starting to smoke. "Increasing taxes is effective in preventing kids from moving from experimentation to regular use -- price becomes a barrier," he said.
To learn more, visit the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.