MONDAY, Oct. 4, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Teenagers harbor some dangerous misperceptions about smoking, and young adults are still taking too many chances with cigarettes.
Those are the claims of two studies that appear in the October issue of Pediatrics.
One study discovered that adolescents believe they are less likely to develop lung cancer or have a heart attack or other smoking-related problems if they smoke light cigarettes.
In the second report, researchers found that more than half of college-age smokers are "social smokers," meaning they typically smoke with others rather than alone. Such smoking can still lead to a full-fledged habit, the authors stated.
Light cigarettes are routinely marketed as safer than regular cigarettes and as an intermediate step towards quitting even though there is no evidence to support these claims, said the authors of the first study.
"Light cigarettes have been marketed as being the safer alternative -- as less harmful, less nicotine, that you're less likely to get addicted," said senior study author Bonnie L. Halpern-Felsher, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of San Francisco. "More recently, there were studies from researchers saying no, if you puff a light cigarette the same as a regular cigarette, they are no less harmful and no less addictive -- and, if anything, may be harmful in a different way."
Regardless, light cigarettes seem to be the preferred mode among adolescent smokers, with more than 51 percent choosing them. This study is the first to look at adolescents' perceptions and knowledge of this supposedly safer alternative.
Of 267 adolescents surveyed, 25 percent to 35 percent believed there were fewer health risks associated with light cigarettes. About two-thirds (64.3 percent) erroneously believed regular cigarettes delivered more tar while 40 percent incorrectly believed regular cigarettes delivered more nicotine.
Participants also felt that light cigarettes were less likely to cause a bad cough, breathing trouble, wrinkles and bad breath. More adolescents believed that it would take longer to become addicted and would be easier to quit with light cigarettes. Only 84 participants had ever tried a cigarette.
The concern, of course, is that the belief that certain types of smoking are less harmful will lead more adolescents to try it. "Clearly, the advertising and marketing that has had such a devastating influence on adults has had the same impact on kids, and they are just as susceptible to those messages as anyone else is," said Matt Barry, senior policy analyst at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "It should serve as a warning to everyone that our kids pay attention to what they see out there and believe these cigarettes are less risky and that they're not going to have heart attacks, develop lung cancer or die as a result of using these. And they're dead wrong."
"We need to counter those messages. We need to have more anti-tobacco measures that are not just saying smoking is bad but even light cigarettes are bad. You can still get addicted," Halpern-Felsher added. "Teens are having misperceptions, and what we really need to do is include light cigarettes in that discussion and dispel myths that they're fine, because they're not."
The second study assessed the prevalence of social smoking among 10,904 college-age individuals. The issue is a critical one because this part-time habit could turn into a full-time one that is difficult to break.
"There hasn't been a lot of good, focused research on that group," Barry said. "This article gives us some good information about how we can approach them and teaches us that they are in a vulnerable and important stage. They're in the 'graduation' period from when they started as kids and they are now going into young adulthood. If we don't get them to quit soon, they're going to be older adults who can't quit. This article suggests that they are on a glide path toward greater addiction and eventually, unfortunately, the illness and disease associated with that."
The American Academy of Pediatrics has more on tobacco, drugs and adolescents.