Smoking Can Spark Alcohol Addiction, Study Suggests

By McCarton Ackerman 04/17/15

Just like a drinker can reach for a smoke, cigarettes can trigger alcohol cravings.

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Some people who usually don’t smoke may reach for a cigarette or two during a night out at the bar, but it turns out the reverse could be true as well. A new study suggests that smoking can create several alcohol cravings that could potentially spark an addiction.

The research project was led by Oliver George, a senior author and biologist at The Scripps Research Institute, and published in The Journal of Neuroscience. George and his colleagues gave rats alcohol to determine how much they would be able to drink and then divided them into two groups.

The first group was exposed to alcohol vapors to induce alcohol dependence over the course of two months. By the end of this period, the rats consumed the equivalent of a six-pack of beer and recorded blood alcohol levels nearly triple the legal limit for humans. But the second group, exposed to nicotine and alcohol vapors, developed a tolerance far more quickly. Within three weeks, they were consuming the equivalent of a six-pack.

Adding the bitter compound quinine to their drinks didn’t even deter rats in the nicotine-exposed group from drinking, while it led to a significant decline in consumption for the alcohol-only group. George found that while drinking, the rats' stress and reward pathways in the brain had been activated in a manner that sparked compulsive behavior similar to alcoholism in humans.

The consequences of this dual addiction can be potentially fatal. A December 2012 study published in The Lancet found that cigarettes and alcohol ranked No. 2 and No. 3 among the world’s leading health risks. Smoking and secondhand smoke was responsible for 6.3 million deaths worldwide in 2010, most of which occurred in the U.S. and Western Europe. Alcohol accounted for 4.9 million deaths that same year, most of which took place in Eastern Europe, Latin American, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.