Drugs of Choice: Drug Users Who Never Suffer Addiction Attract Scientific Interest

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Drugs of Choice

Nancy Reagan's battle cry in her war on drugs was "Just say no" -- a simple phrase that carries the implicit message that once you say "yes" and take a snort of cocaine or a swig of whiskey, or taste any intoxicating substance, you risk falling into dangerous, uncontrolled drug use.

Many recent theories reflect this notion in suggesting that repeated exposure to an addictive substance inevitably saps the human will and segues into unrestrained drug consumption.

But what those theories ignore, and what some people forget amid alarming stories of crack cocaine deaths and other drug-induced tragedies, is that many people "just say yes" to over-the-counter or under-the-table substances and use them moderately without getting hooked.

Although most drug researchers concentrate on abusers, some focus on people who manage to control their ingestion of mood-altering drugs. In fact, some investigators maintain that occasional users may help clarify the nature of drug addiction and present new approaches to preventing or curing it.

"The occasional user of narcotics and other drugs is more common than most people realize," says psychopharmacologist Ronald K. Siegel of the University of California, Los Angeles. "These users are difficult to study because they do not regularly appear in hospitals, clinics, coroners' offices, courts or other places where abusers surface."

On the other hand, researchers cannot point to a typical "addictive personality" or predict who will and who will not become addicted to a particular drug.

One attempt to illuminate the nature of controlled drug use focuses on people who ingest a highly toxic, extremely habit-forming and entirely legal substance -- nicotine. Psychologist Saul Shiffman of the University of Pittsburgh and his colleagues study "tobacco chippers" -- light smokers who regularly use tobacco without developing symptoms of physical or psychological dependence.

"Chipping" is a street term originally used to describe the occasional use of opiates such as heroin.

Tobacco chippers are not easily found. Federal statistics indicate one-quarter to one-third of U.S. adults smoke cigarettes. Recent studies of smokers find that more than 90 percent experience intense cravings for cigarettes and other withdrawal symptoms typical of nicotine dependence.

Shiffman and his co-workers compared 18 tobacco chippers who regularly smoke five or fewer cigarettes per day with 29 dependent smokers who consume 20 to 40 cigarettes daily.

Chippers differed from dependent smokers in a number of ways, Shiffman reports in the April PSYCHOPHARMACOLOGY. Dependent smokers reported numerous signs of withdrawal, such as irritability and cigarette craving, after an enforced overnight abstinence; chippers appeared unaffected by the deprivation and reported regularly abstaining from smoking for days at a time. Thus, chippers continue to smoke without any of the withdrawal symptoms that reinforce the addiction in other smokers, Shiffman asserts.

Chippers appear psychologically distinct from dependent smokers, he adds. They report less stress in their daily lives and more effective methods of coping with stress, perhaps lessening their need to smoke.

Tobacco chippers also tend to smoke while drinking a cup of coffee or in response to other external cues, Shiffman says, whereas dependent smokers "basically smoke when they're awake." His research team confirmed this observation with reports from 25 chippers and 25 dependent smokers who carried hand-held computers for several days, on which they recorded their moods and activities just before lighting up a cigarette.

Chippers smoke as often when they are alone as when they are with others who are smoking, Shiffman says, dampening suspicions that occasional smoking is primarily a social behavior.

Further findings suggest tobacco chippers and dependent smokers may differ biologically, he notes. …