The Link Between Smoking and Drinking
Smoking and alcohol use often go hand in hand. Here's why you need to kick both habits.

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Picture of a cigar and drink The Link Between Smoking and Drinking

You know how bars are portrayed in the movies. Everyone in the dimly lit room has a cigarette in one hand and a scotch in the other. Where there's smoke, there's likely to be alcohol, too.

In this case, Hollywood has it right. Clinical studies have shown that smoking and liquor often go together. Compared to the general population:

  • People who smoke are four times more likely to abuse alcohol. And, people who drink a lot tend to smoke heavily.
  • People who abuse alcohol are three times more likely to have a smoking problem.

Both alcohol and nicotine dependence tend to run in families. So, scientists suspect there may be a genetic link that makes people vulnerable to both addictions. Researchers also believe that nicotine and alcohol act on the same part of the brain.

Other studies show that using alcohol and tobacco together can boost the pleasurable effects of both. That's how "mutual craving" comes into play. Smoking can trigger a desire for alcohol, and vice versa.

Kicking both habits
Most people who seek treatment for alcoholism are also chronic smokers. For people with an alcoholic addiction, giving up smoking is especially hard. Even if they have stopped drinking, they may be more addicted to nicotine than smokers who never had a drinking problem. People with both addictions are encouraged to look for smoke-free Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Both addictions need to be treated, but approaches vary. Some rehab programs focus on alcoholism first and then work on smoking. Other addiction programs encourage giving up both habits at the same time. The results are mixed, and neither method has been proven more effective. Quitting smoking, though, does not cause a reformed drinker to relapse.

Depression and anxiety are often linked to the co-use of tobacco and alcohol, too. Some people drink and smoke to self-medicate when they are depressed. For others, being depressed or anxious can make them crave alcohol and nicotine. In these cases, any mood disorder needs to be treated along with the addictions.

Dangers of co-addiction
Abusing both alcohol and tobacco greatly increases your health dangers. Your risk of getting mouth or throat cancer rises dramatically when you smoke and drink heavily.

If you smoke and drink, studies show that you are more likely to die from tobacco-related diseases than alcohol-related causes. Recovering alcoholics who keep smoking are more likely to get heart or lung disease and cancers of the head, mouth and throat. That's why kicking both habits is essential.

Now that a tie between smoking and drinking is established, doctors are being urged to use this knowledge as a screening tool. Doctors are far more likely to ask patients about smoking habits than alcohol use. Knowing that a patient smokes, though, can alert doctors to look for possible signs of alcohol abuse.

By Eve Glicksman, Staff Writer
Created on 11/16/1999
Updated on 07/07/2011
Sources:
  • National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol and tobacco.
  • McKee SA, Falba T, O'Malley SS, Sindelar J, O'Connor PG. Smoking status as a clinical indicator for alcohol misuse in US adults. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2007;167(7):716-721.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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