At least three out of five people who start smoking go on to become daily smokers, a pioneering study has found.
The data of more than 215,000 people, analysed by Queen Mary University of London, found at least 60.9% of people who try smoking repeat the habit daily, at least temporarily.
Study authors said the findings provide strong support for prioritising efforts to reduce cigarette experimentation among adolescents.
While smoking as a teen was once a rite of passage, researchers reveal the recent reduction in the number of smokers overall could be down to the fact teenagers are already “experimenting” with cigarettes less than they used to.
Data was compiled from eight studies from the UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand to gather their results. The research selected asked respondents whether they’d ever tried a cigarette and ever smoked daily.
The team calculated that overall 60.3% of respondents had said they had ever tried a cigarette in their life, and among those, an estimated 68.9% said they had progressed to daily smoking.
Because the surveys used different methodologies and thus yielded different results, researchers explained the estimated 68.9% “conversion rate” from experimentation to daily smoking has a margin of error, between 60.9% and 76.9%.
Commenting on the findings, 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% of 11-15 year olds have ever tried a cigarette, so the good news is that we are on the right track.”
Given the high conversion rate found in all existing surveys, the researchers suggested 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.
However, they did point out questions can be raised over the recall accuracy people have in surveys concerning their smoking history, so more research may be needed in this area.
The survey is published in full in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research.