At least 61 per cent of people who try their first cigarette become, at least temporarily, daily smokers, suggests an analysis of survey data by Queen Mary University of London.
The findings, from over 215,000 survey respondents and published in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research, provides strong support for prioritising efforts to reduce cigarette experimentation among adolescents.
Lead researcher Professor Peter Hajek from Queen Mary 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.
"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. We've 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.
"The UK is seeing a dramatic reduction in smoking at the moment and this tallies with recent findings that only 19 per cent of 11-15 year olds have ever tried a cigarette, so the good news is that we are on the right track."
The researchers searched the Global Health Data Exchange* for relevant surveys that included questions about ever trying a cigarette and ever smoking daily. Datasets from eight surveys were found from the UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand, and the survey methods were found to be on par with best practice. Data were analysed to calculate the conversion rate from ever trying a cigarette to ever smoking daily.
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.
The different surveys used different methodologies and yielded different results, so the estimated 68.9 per cent 'conversion rate' from experimentation to daily smoking has a margin of error (between 60.9 and 76.9 per cent).
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.
Professor Peter Hajek added: "Concerns were expressed that e-cigarettes could be as addictive as conventional cigarettes, but this has not been the case. 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."
The study's limitations include the fact that surveys yielded somewhat different results, so the estimated conversion rate is only approximate. There are also questions that can be raised over the accuracy of the recall people have in surveys concerning their smoking history.
Declaration of Interests: Professor Peter Hajek provided consultancy to and received research funding from manufacturers of stop-smoking medications.
No external funding was sought for this study.
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Notes to the editor
* The Global Health Data Exchange describes itself as the world's most comprehensive catalogue of surveys, censuses, vital statistics, and other health-related data: http://ghdx.
Research paper: 'What proportion of people who try one cigarette become daily smokers? A meta analysis of representative surveys'. Max Birge, Stephen Duffy, Joanna Astrid Miler, Peter Hajek. Nicotine & Tobacco Research. doi 10.1093/ntr/ntx243
About Queen Mary University of London
Queen Mary University of London is one of the UK's leading universities with 23,120 students representing more than 160 nationalities.
A member of the Russell Group, we work across the humanities and social sciences, medicine and dentistry, and science and engineering, with inspirational teaching directly informed by our research. In the most recent national assessment of the quality of research, we were placed ninth in the UK amongst multi-faculty universities (Research Excellence Framework 2014).
As well as our main site at Mile End - which is home to one of the largest self-contained residential campuses in London - we have campuses at Whitechapel, Charterhouse Square, and West Smithfield dedicated to the study of medicine and dentistry, and a base for legal studies at Lincoln's Inn Fields.
Queen Mary began life as the People's Palace, a Victorian philanthropic project designed to bring culture, recreation and education to the people of the East End. We also have roots in Westfield College, one of the first colleges to provide higher education to women; St Bartholomew's Hospital, one of the first public hospitals in Europe; and The London, one of England's first medical schools.