Med school study links alcohol abuse and smoking

A group of researchers at the School of Medicine are working to untangle the relationship between two popular vices.

According to a recent study led by psychiatry professor Sherry McKee, smoking indicates a heightened risk of bad drinking habits and alcohol abuse. The findings, extrapolated from data collected by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, were part of a broader research project she is leading that will investigate various attributes of the relationship between smoking and drinking.

“The two often go together,” McKee said. “This study was part of a larger program of research that looks at different facets of nicotine and alcohol interactions. Hopefully, if medical care professionals are screening a patient and find that the patient is smoking, this will now trigger them to also screen for alcohol abuse.”

Besides finding that smoking and alcohol use are connected, the study also concludes that occasional smokers are actually more likely to abuse alcohol than regular smokers. Non-daily smokers are five times more likely to have an alcohol problem than non-smokers, while daily smokers are three times more likely to have an alcohol problem than non-smokers.

“Past studies have generally just looked at daily smokers,” McKee said. “But non-daily smokers had the highest risk of all.”

Though the study did not conclude as to why smoking and drinking are interrelated, or why occasional smokers are more likely to abuse alcohol than regular smokers, McKee voiced some suppositions.

“I suspect that those who smoke irregularly are more likely to do it when they binge drink,” McKee said. “Alcohol makes smoking a better experience. This relates to college students, as rates of binge drinking are higher among them than among non-college students.”

McKee said this is only a tentative inference. Nevertheless, some students on campus agreed with her point.

Neil Parikh ’08 said his experience observing others at parties supports the theory.

“I think that’s true,” he said. “I’ve been to parties where people get tipsy, and then suddenly they’ve downed half a pack of cigarettes.”

Carter Schonwald ’10 said the study’s results make intuitive sense given the nature of addiction.

“If someone is likely to have a chemical dependency, it is natural to assume that other chemical dependencies could develop as well,” he said.

The research was based on data collected from 42,374 adults across the nation. The numbers were from a previously existing data set created by the NIAAA, and McKee said that she and her colleagues were given a grant to approach that data set from a new perspective: thinking of smoking as a specific tool for screening medical patients.

The study was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine on April 9.

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