Effects of alcohol on smoking cessation - 1

The question of the effects of alcohol use on smoking cessation is best separated into 2 different but related questions.

1. Does drinking alcohol increase someone’s chances of relapsing to smoking during the early stages (e.g. first 6 months after quitting smoking)? And

2. Does either a current or past history of alcohol problems affect someone’s chances of successfully quitting?

Lets tackle question one first.

Dr John Cunningham and colleagues from University of Toronto recently conducted a survey of smokers interested in quitting. They found that most (82%) daily smokers who were current drinkers reported they frequently or always experienced a strong urge, desire or thoughts about smoking when they drank alcohol. In fact the research literature is very clear that consuming alcohol increases craving for a cigarette and makes it more likely that an individual will smoke.

In a series of laboratory studies by Dr Sheree McKee and colleagues at Yale University, smokers were given monetary rewards for not smoking, and then allowed to drink either alcohol or a taste-matched placebo drink (with no alcohol). After consuming the alcohol beverage, participants were less able to resist the first cigarette and initiated their smoking sessions sooner, and smoked more cigarettes compared to the placebo beverage.

So what does this mean for the drinker who wants to quit smoking? Lets first of all assume you are not a “problem drinker” (see next post for definition). My usual advice is that you abstain completely from alcohol during the first 30 days of an attempt to stop smoking. After that, you should think carefully about when you choose to drink alcohol and carefully consider whether it may make you more likely to smoke. If it’s a situation in which other people will be smoking or cigarettes will be available that’s another big trigger at the same time. In the second month after quitting I’d advise against drinking in a situation when others are smoking. Having a glass of wine at dinner with people who are not smoking may be a safe way to test the waters. On subsequent occasions, when you are considering whether to go to an event or whether to drink at it, ask yourself whether drinking will make you more likely to smoke. If the answer is “yes” then either don’t go or don’t drink when you go. If you decide to go and drink (which I don’t recommend if others are smoking there), make sure you are very clear in your mind that no-matter whatever else happens, you are going to leave that event without drinking excessively and without smoking. That means making sure you have your smoking cessation medicines (and use them), and that you know what you will say if offered a smoke. Ideally, try to arrange to meet someone else there who knows you have quit smoking and is supportive.

Here’s another thing to consider. If you’ve managed to not smoke for 30 days, that’s a tremendous achievement that likely took a lot of effort. If you continue to succeed it will likely add around 10 healthy years to your life (and possibly as many as 30). To risk throwing all that away in order to have a drink of alcohol doesn’t make much sense. Also be very wary of the addiction trying to put you into a situation where it will be easy to relapse. Other smokers, a party atmosphere, and then a few drinks on top. Sounds like a good excuse for a smoke? So make sure you don’t let it be.

Finally, if you are someone with a current or past history of alcohol problems then the decision is even clearer. Lets tackle that one in my next post.
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About the Author

MA, MAppSci, PhD

Dr. Jonathan Foulds is an expert in the field of tobacco addiction.