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And teens don't have to smoke a cigarette every day to become addicted to tobacco. According to a new study, once a month will do. NPR's Brenda Wilson reports on teens who smoke cigarettes occasionally, and then find that addiction to nicotine can happen before they know it.

BRENDA WILSON: There's a lot of folks outside Washington, D.C.'s Black Cat club, where a thick, gray cloud only gets thicker as the night sets in and the band finishes its set. The source of the cloud is a large, heavy-duty ashtray stand on the street outside, to which 19-year-old Julia DiGeronimo heads with purpose, a pack of Camel's Black in hand to tell us how she became a smoker at age 15.

Ms. JULIA DiGERONIMO: I wasn't smoking every day; I was every once in a while. And then it became - more when I was like 16 and 17, I was like, OK, I had friends that smoked so it was like, only when I was with them I'd be smoking. It wasnt as much as I am smoking now. But now, I only smoke about seven cigarettes a day, so. And then if I go out, it's a little bit more.

WILSON: Notice how she says only seven cigarettes a day as if she's not quite hooked and will quit any day, once she gets beyond her exams. Julia DiGeronimo is a pretty typical example of how addiction progresses, says Dr. Joseph DiFranza of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. He followed more than a thousand sixth-graders for four years in order to track the sequence of addiction symptoms after they had had their first puff.

Dr. JOSEPH DiFRANZA (Family Medicine, University of Massachusetts Medical Center): What happens is when you first get addicted, one cigarette a month or one cigarette a week is enough to keep your addiction satisfied. But as time goes by, you have to smoke cigarettes more and more frequently. So people may be addicted for a year before they feel the need to smoke a cigarette every day.

WILSON: In fact, more than a third of the young people in DiFranza's study who said they had tried smoking a cigarette developed a once-a-month habit, like Julia's, at age 15. DiFranza says addiction symptoms occur in a predictable way.

Dr. DiFRANZA: When people are just wanting a cigarette every now and then, they think they just enjoy smoking. As time passes, then they start to notice they'll crave a cigarette. So even when they're not with somebody who's smoking, all of a sudden something pops into their mind that tells them it's time to smoke a cigarette. And when they get to the point of needing a cigarette, that means they have an urgent need to smoke, and they have to smoke to get it out of their heads.

WILSON: Even when that happened, DiGeronimo didn't think of herself as hooked. She didn't realize it until she was 18 and knew she could legally buy her first pack of cigarettes. DiFranza says that's not unusual.

Dr. DiFRANZA: People will get by just bumming cigarettes and mooching off of their friends until the point where they find that they can't go a whole day without a cigarette, and that's often when they first start to buy cigarettes.

WILSON: Within about three to four years, a fourth of the teens who had tried tobacco talked about withdrawal symptoms.

Dr. DiFRANZA: You can get trouble concentrating, people get irritable, they might have trouble sleeping. They notice that they're hungry more often. So all of these things are nicotine withdrawal symptoms.

WILSON: Before this study, DiFranza says scientists didnt understand that wanting a cigarette every once in a while was a sign that addiction was starting. That's the time to quit.

People who keep smoking even occasionally, Joseph DiFranza says, are fooling themselves if they think they don't have an addiction to nicotine.

Brenda Wilson, NPR News.

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