Almost a quarter of all youth that begin smoking, drinking or using drugs of any kind before the age of 18 go on to become severely addicted to some sort of drug in adulthood according to a new study released this week by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA). As a matter of fact, 90% of drug addictions begin in high school.

Susan Foster, senior investigator of the study explains:

“We now have enough science to show that adolescent substance use is America’s number one public health problem. By recognizing this as a health problem and responding to it, we can actually make the difference by improving the life prospects of teens and saving costs in society. Addiction is the most costly health problem in America today, and it drives 70 other diseases that require hospitalization. It drives a host of very costly health and social problems that are largely preventable. We can do something about it.”

Researchers from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, or CASA, found that nine out of 10 American addicts started smoking, drinking or using drugs before the age of 18 and one in four of those people become addicted to some sort of drug.

Dr. Stanton Glantz, director of the University of California at San Francisco Center for Tobacco and Research and Education continues:

“The brain is still developing up until age 25, so when you put nicotine and psychoactive substances in the body, it’s actually messing with the brain as its developing. Nicotine tends to be the gateway drug when kids start smoking younger. They’re more likely to become addicted and smoke for a longer period of time.”

In a related study, John Hopkins research investigated the associations between cigarette smoking and illegal drug use, the researchers analyzed data from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse which provided information about the use of illicit drugs, alcohol, and tobacco among members of the non-institutionalized United States civilian population aged 12 or older. The survey data were originally collected through personal visits to the residences of 17,809 respondents.

Results showed that those who had smoked cigarettes were more likely to use illegal drugs. For all age groups combined, the 65.8% of participants who had ever smoked were: seven times more likely to have tried marijuana; seven times more likely to have tried cocaine; 14 times more likely to have tried crack; and 16 times more likely to have tried heroin. The results were even more startling when the statistical evidence was sub-divided by age groups. Associations between smoking and illegal drug use were significantly stronger for young people. For instance, people ages 12 to 15 who smoked cigarettes were 44 times more likely to use crack, compared with only a twofold risk in those 50 or older.

Cocaine, in either powder or crack form, was the drug most likely to be used among young cigarette smokers. Because the associations decrease with age, the Hopkins authors said there is an implication that cigarette smoking is a better predictor for illegal drug use in young people. With the numbers of high school-aged smokers increasing over the past decade, the results of the present analysis in fact predict an increase in illegal drug use over the next few decades.

Sources: The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University and John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Written by Sy Kraft