Are Cigarettes a Gateway Drug?

While most parents are very concerned about their teenage children using alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs, there is often less of a concern about cigarettes. Yet, research has shown that teens who smoke cigarettes have a much higher risk of abusing drugs and alcohol. This is leading to greater acceptance of the concept of cigarettes being a gateway drug that can lead to other harmful addictions.

In a study from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, researchers found that teens who smoked cigarettes are five times more likely to drink, 13 times more likely to abuse marijuana, and seven times more likely to abuse other illegal drugs. The study also showed that teens between the ages of 12 and 17 who smoked were twice as likely as non-smoking teems to suffer from clinical depression.

The Impact of Cigarettes on Teens

The study also investigated the effects of smoking on the brains of teens and the functional changes that occur. The findings showed:

  • Smoking caused the brain’s receptors for nicotine to increase making it more difficult for a teen to quit smoking
  • Changes to brain receptors also increased the chances of cravings for other drugs
  • Serotonin receptors changed with smoking, increasing the likelihood of depression
  • Dopamine levels increased the “reward” response that occurs when abusing drugs or alcohol

Preventing Teen Drug Abuse

The study has been a wake-up call to parents, as well as to pediatricians, teachers and others who are dedicated to preventing teen drug abuse. Teen smoking may very well be an early indicator of future alcohol and drug abuse, as well as a precursor to certain mental health conditions like depression and anxiety disorders.

Although there has been a lot of focus on the serious physical health consequences of smoking, more attention may need to be paid to how smoking affects the brains of teens. If you are concerned that your teen may be smoking, be proactive about getting them to quit. And, if there is a greater problem with alcohol or drug abuse, now is the time to get professional help.

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