Parents may not think of tobacco products as a “drug” in the traditional sense, but they can be every bit as addicting. They also come with significant health risks. So although teens may not be losing their mind from smoking or vaping, the difference between cigarettes and more traditional drugs is smaller than you might think.

Smoking as a gateway drug

One concern is the strong link between smoking and other types of substance abuse. A report by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services found that in “the 12- through 17-year-old group…those who smoked daily were approximately 14-times more likely to have binged on alcohol, 114 times more likely to have used marijuana at least 11 times, and 32 times more likely to have used cocaine at least 11 times than those who had not smoked.” (USDHHS, 1994, p. 36) Another report by Non-Smoking Youth concludes, “the decisions to use tobacco or other gateway drugs set up patterns of behavior that make it easier for a user to go on to other drugs.” (Hanson et al., 2004, p. 333)

How much of this link is due to the actual habit of smoking and how much of it is just a disconnected correlation in which those youth who smoke are also more likely to do drugs in general is up for debate. Yet at least some of it appears to be due to the habit itself. Nicotine can prime addiction pathways, and youth who smoke tend to congregate together, which exposes them to a group that is more likely to introduce them to other drugs. Studies have found, for example, that consumption rates for alcohol also go down when a person stops smoking.