Addiction is a brain disease

The effects of tobacco addiction are inherently different on the adolescent brain as compared to adults. This was the focus of the presentation by Daniel Logan, MD, at the 6th Annual Rural Tobacco Summit on “Addiction: Tobacco & E-Cigarettes.” Logan, an assistant professor at the University of Florida Department of Psychiatry, discussed distinctive mental characteristics of teenage smokers.

The adolescent brain is maturing until about the age of 25. During this time, long-term connections and mental processes are being strengthened. When a teenager consumes tobacco there is an increase in nicotine receptors greater than that seen in adults because the teen brain is not yet fully developed. The increase also lasts longer in teens than in adults. This process quickly habituates the individual to smoking and has long-term effects on addictive and cognitive behavior.

Smoking is unique, Logan said, because it is simply a delivery system for the toxin: nicotine. Nicotine’s toxic properties reinforce “reward pathways” in the brain, including the release of dopamine, that lead to major dependence in adolescents. Teen smokers show signs of nicotine dependence before becoming daily smokers and they are more likely to be heavy smokers than those who are exposed to tobacco after the age of 18.

“Over 90 percent of lifetime smokers started before age 18,” Logan said. “If we can delay initial exposure before the age of 25, the likelihood of lifetime addiction diminishes significantly.”

The pathways are also intensified with vaping, the use of personal vaporizers commonly known as “e-cigarettes,” which is often considered a harmless alternative to smoking.

“You’re simply reinforcing the behavior,” Logan said. “If you normalize the behavior, it’s not surprising that smoking becomes more popular.”

Vaping imitates tobacco-smoking behavior and increases the likelihood of initial teen exposure and addiction to tobacco. Logan’s presentation emphasized that although vaping is the “lesser evil” of tobacco use, it should not be mistaken as a “safe” substitution or as quitting.

The summit, sponsored by Suwannee River AHEC, Lake Shore Hospital and North Central Florida Cancer Control Collaborative(NCFCCC), was held in April 2014. Oversight and leadership of NCFCCC is provided by WellFlorida Council.

By Nicole Martins, WellFlorida Council Intern

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