Walking around Fountain Ave. on a Saturday night or walking up the steps of Olin Library on a weeknight, it would be hard for a passerby to miss the ubiquity of cigarettes on campus. But some faculty members are changing the way students think about lighting up. While many of us think that smoking is just a phase—something that won’t affect us in the future—new research from Psychology Professors Lisa Dierker and Jennifer Rose suggests that those few cigarettes may lead to a lifetime of nicotine dependence. According to their data analysis, even one cigarette may lead to nicotine dependent symptoms.
“Our ultimate goal is to help as many youth as we can avoid the trap of nicotine addiction,” Dierker said. “We believe that we can make a difference by educating the community about the most potent signals for the development of chronic smoking behavior.”
Their research, based in the Allbritton Center, focuses on how young adults develop addiction to nicotine and different factors that contribute to addiction. According to Professor Dierker, the conventional belief is that only heavy, daily smokers can become addicted to nicotine; those who smoke much less are supposedly not as susceptible to addictive symptoms.
But the results from their research indicated that even with very low smoking levels, and soon after smoking their first cigarette, many youth develop addiction symptoms. For adolescents smoking as little as one to three days a month, 42 percent felt some loss of control over smoking, 24 percent avoided places that prohibited smoking, and 23 percent felt irritable after not smoking for a while.
“This isn’t to say that these youth are dependent,” Rose said. “They may only be smoking a couple times a month but what we are showing is that people who have these symptoms, even at low levels, have a significantly greater risk of becoming chronic smokers in the future.”
The possible conclusion of this study is that for many young adults who think they are only experimenting with cigarettes, smoking can easily become an addiction.
This isn’t news to Adam Johnson ’14, however, who said that through his own experience he has discovered what Dierker and Rose are now trying to support with statistical analysis.
“Obviously I smoke and I smoke a lot so it never was a question about whether I was dependent,” Johnson said. “People say to me, ‘If I didn’t smoke as much as you did, I’d be fine’, yet I am always quick to tell people there’s no number, no amount you have to smoke. I’m glad [Professors Dierker and Rose] are working on [this study], but it’s not surprising to me.”
Landon Pasby ’14 disagrees with part of Professors Dierker and Rose’s conclusion, however.
“I don’t doubt there’s some truth, but I’ve been smoking since I’ve been 17, and I’ve gone through months without ever wanting or smoking a cigarette,” Pasby said. “I think it’s true for some people and not for others.”
Regardless, Dierker and Rose hope to help the generations of future smokers avoid smoking from the start—or recognize that they are especially at risk. Their hope isn’t to specifically influence the Wesleyan community.
“We’ve already contributed to the literature on the emergence of nicotine dependence, especially on how it is measured in new smokers,” Rose said. “A lot of the measures we had were developed on heavy, adult smokers, and we wanted to know if these measures worked as well for new, light smokers.”
Their research is focused in the computer lab using multiple data sources via new methods.
“We have a grant to apply a new method called Integrated Data Analysis,” Rose said. “You can apply data from different studies, and regardless of how they differ – different subjects, measures, collection methods – you can combine these data in a way that wasn’t possible before. It’s very novel, because these new statistical methods can handle differences we didn’t know how to handle before.”
With Integrated Data Analysis, a statistical software, Dierker and Rose can compare adolescent smokers to young adult smokers and older, more chronic smokers to try to discover a pattern, rather than just researching adolescents.
“We want to determine if addictive symptoms reported by youth at low levels of smoking, and early in smoking, are predictive of chronic smoking,” Dierker said. “In other words, can early onset of addiction symptoms for new adolescent smokers be a signal for chronic smoking?”
However, even with all the progress that Dierker and Rose have made, the final product of their research is years from completion.
“We hope to create some kind of brief measure that can be used in a doctor’s office to screen individuals that would quickly, easily, and accurately find those kids that will go on to heavier smoking so that intervention efforts can be started,” Rose said.
Part of their study also involves researching how alcoholism appears to signal a greater sensitivity to the effects of nicotine. This too is contrary to the established belief that only heavy smoking and heavy drinking positively influence each other.
As a corollary to this, Dierker and a post-doctorate graduate student, Mayumi Gianoli, are also developing ways to get students more involved in this study. Already they have opened the Applied Data Analysis course to freshmen in the form of a First Year Initiative and they are working on ways to make statistics easier to learn and more approachable.
“The National Science Foundation funds the development of resources for the Qualitative Analysis Course,” Dierker said. “Given the focus of the tobacco project on secondary data analysis, the NSF course provides a potential pipeline for getting more students involved in the study by training them on skills relevant to the analysis of large data sets.”
Dierker hopes that by getting students more excited and interested in data analysis earlier on in their academic career, they can more profoundly develop their abilities and interests in understanding how to interpret data.