Who smokes anymore?
Cigarette smoke and recovery have long been associated. However, with thorough and pervasive anti-smoking campaigns spanning the country over the past few decades, who really smokes anymore?
In 2015, it was reported that 31 percent of the general population still regularly smoked. That number was nearly three times higher — 84 percent — for people in treatment for substance use disorders.
Why do people smoke more in recovery?
An article composed by Jaimee L. Heffner, PhD, and Robert M. Anthenelli, MD, for the Psychiatric Times offers insights from individuals in recovery. One quote reveals the main reasons why people smoke more in these settings: “I heard at AA that you shouldn’t quit everything at the same time. It’s too much of a shock to the system and might make you want to go back to drinking. Also, I really wanted to do some cocaine when I was out on my weekend pass so I thought it was better to do the less dangerous drug. It was either cocaine or smoke.”
Replace AA with any rehabilitation organization and alcohol or cocaine with any other substance and you have your reasons:
- To quit smoking, too, would be a shock to the system
- Smoking is a relatively safe way to appease the craving for an addictive substance
- Smoking is a habitual comfort during a particularly difficult challenge
- Picking up smoking happens easily among so many other smokers
What is the myth?
A commonly held belief about smoking is that it can actually help in the recovery process. For some individuals, this might be true, insofar that trying to quit everything at the same time may feel like an impossible feat. Tobacco smoke is a less unsafe substance than heroin or crystal meth, and so it follows that smoking cessation may not be among the first priorities.
Individual experiences may vary, but scientifically reviewed research on the topic tells us that smoking will not aid in the recovery process. In fact, it can be deadly.
What is the research?
One study from the 1990s showed that “approximately 50 percent of patients who were followed after inpatient substance abuse treatment died of tobacco-related causes — a rate that exceeded deaths from alcohol-related causes (34 percent).” Other studies indicate that people with substance use disorders tend to start smoking at a younger age, are more dependent on nicotine, and have a greater risk for some alcohol and smoke-related cancers.
Outcomes as they relate to recovery overall are better for those who quit smoking. This sentence sums up the results gathered from over a decade of research:
“An overwhelming majority of studies suggest that smoking cessation interventions either have a positive effect on sobriety or are unrelated to abstinence from alcohol and illicit drugs.”
All of the studies cited here can be found in the “References” section at the bottom of this page.
How have other people in recovery handled tobacco smoke?
Doctors Heffner and Anthenelli from the Psychiatric Times article mentioned above endorse the research that supports the potential benefits of quitting smoking alongside other addictive substances. Nonetheless, here they explain that individual stories from smokers tend to make more of an impact on others grappling with this same problem:
“In working with patients to address the belief that smoking cessation increases the risk of alcohol and drug relapse, we have found that sharing anecdotal evidence rather than citing research findings tends to be a more powerful motivator to reexamine such beliefs. Thus, learning more about the experiences of fellow smokers in treatment or recovery who have successfully quit smoking can be very helpful.”
One source for these personal stories are online recovery communities, like those outlined in this blog post. The following quotes come from a thread on Redditors in Recovery that posits the question: Do you include quitting smoking cigarettes in your definition of recovery? Each user explains how their relationship with smoking changed throughout the recovery process.
- “I quit two weeks ago, but was really really ready to give them up. Smoking helped for the first couple of months. Sugar and caffeine are next on the surrender list.”
- “I quit smoking about 6 months after my official clean date, but I would consider picking up a cigarette a relapse at this point.”
- “I actually started smoking again the first time I got sober. I kind of felt like, ‘F this, I’m getting sober then I am damn well smoking again.’ I did end up quitting smoking a little over 2 years ago now.”
That link contains dozens of other similar anecdotes. Everyone’s journey is different.
The bottom line is that cigarette smoke is addictive and has negative effects on your health, both long term and short term. You may find that smoking cessation is a not priority — or even feasible — during recovery, but it is always a positive goal.
Other scientific resources on the topic: