Weird Fact #12: Most people who try cigarettes don’t become addicted.
At one point or another, we’ve all had that one friend who is a three-pack-a-day guy. He’s the poor fellow with the wheezing cough who spends his lunch hour freezing outside the building and reeks of smoke – a sort of walking anti-tobacco ad. Moreover, he generally hates his habit as much as you do. One smoker I knew said if the man who gave her her first cigarette wasn’t dead, she’d kill him.
It is now well-acknowledged that smokes are deadly and that nicotine, their key ingredient, is a highly addictive and very nasty substance. That’s why most parents wisely advise kids to avoid lighting up for the first time. After a just few puffs, you could be that three-pack-a-day guy.
However, surprising statistics and research suggest the odds are that you won’t.
This is a heretical truth that is rarely shared. While cigarettes are indeed dangerously addictive to untold numbers around the world who develop hardcore habits, somewhere between half and two-thirds of Americans who try it never become smokers at all. Unlike with many other drugs, most find the experience deeply unpleasant and never go near cigarettes again. The habit isn’t as easy to pick up as popular culture might indicate.
In a more unexpected twist, even among those who continue to smoke, there are some who are not really addicted in the traditional sense, and can take or leave their cancer sticks much as they please. Known as “chippers,” some only smoke occassionally. Exact numbers aren’t known but estimates run between 5 and 20 percent of the smoking population. Some exhibit varying degrees of dependence. Others simply don’t.
Chipping also seems to be on the increase. Estimates say that as many as 15 million Americans who smoke don’t do so every day. An eye-opening World Health Organization report found that in Central America, non-daily users could account for as many as two-thirds of smokers. It should also be noted though that impoverished smokers in the developing world may simply have less cash to burn on their habit. Perhaps one of those rare instances of poverty being healthy.
Scientists believe genetic factors related to nicotine tolerance as well as social and economic influences, decide who becomes the three-pack-a-day guy, who smokes casually and who just coughs violently and makes that first butt their last.
Still, it’s a complex picture that impacts at the heart of what constitutes addiction as we generally understand the term. We tend to think in hard lines and black-and-white realities but in fact, the true nature of a drug’s potential for dependence is full of shades of gray.
Of course, little of this subtlety is mentioned in the fire and brimstone of PSAs or parental lectures. Nicotine is frequently talked about as being so habit-forming that even a single cigarette is a virtual guarantee that the monkey is on one’s back for life. Before one is too critical of such alarmism, it should be noted that, while this is not accurate for the majority of those who try the nicotine, there is good reason for the exaggeration. Smoking kills an estimated 443,000 Americans annually, often through horrible illnesses like emphysema. Almost 50,000 of the deaths are from secondhand smoke. In fact, the CDC estimates that a staggering one in every five American deaths are cigarette-related. Figures for the whole planet are even more frightening. The World Health Organization has implcated smoking in six of the eight leading causes of death on Earth, estimating it has felled an astonishing 100 million people over the last century. That’s almost the equivalent of fighting WWII – twice. Nicotine is quite literally a poison and a significant number of experimenters really do get hooked from the start. Addiction is quite real and its consequences are very, very tragic.
Yet, it is true that if you do choose to try a cigarette, your odds of not becoming a heavy smoker – or ever touching a cigarette again for that matter – are actually probably better than even, a far cry from what you were told as a teenager.
Still, the socially beneficial lie may be healthier than the raw truth and may save a lot more lives. The odds in Russian Roulette are good too but it’s still best not to play where avoiding death is the best outcome possible.
“The Tipping Point,” by Malcolm Gladwell