Giving Up Cigarettes May Help You Stay Sober, Study Says

By William Georgiades 03/29/17

A new study found that smokers in recovery were twice as likely to relapse as non-smokers in recovery.

Woman snapping a cigarette in half.

The saying goes that you can figure out where the 12-step meetings are by all the smokers standing outside the church.

Recovery from addiction has often seemed—and is often portrayed—as involving cigarettes. But a new study shows that quitting cigarette smoking can greatly increase an addict’s chances of staying away from narcotics.

In fact, according to the study, substance abusers in recovery who were also smokers were twice as likely as nonsmokers to relapse within three years.

The study comes from the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University’s School of Public Health, where a team studied government data on 34,653 adults in the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC).

The participants in the NESARC were assessed at two periods, three years apart and only those with a substance use disorder as defined by the DSM-IV qualified for the group. After finding that smokers were twice as likely to relapse as non-smokers, the data was revisited and continued to hold up, even when taking factors such as demographics into consideration. 

The reason that smoking seems so prevalent amongst those in early recovery is the notion that clinicians consider it might be “too difficult” for someone to quit smoking in addition to other addictive substances, according to Renee Goodwin, PhD, of the Department of Epidemiology, Mailman School of Public Health, who led the research.

It is worth noting that smoking is what killed Bill Wilson, the co-founder of AA, a very heavy smoker who succumbed to smoking-related emphysema in 1971 at the age of 75, when he had 35 years sober.

The statistics amongst those surveyed were clear—relapse happened to 6.5% of those who never smoked, 8% of those who quit smoking and a startling 11% of those who continued to smoke. 

The conclusion to the study was that “tobacco treatment [should be] a standard part of treatment for illicit substance use disorders,” according to Goodwin.

The lead author of the study, Andrea Weinberger, assistant professor in the Albert Einstein College of Medicine department of epidemiology, added that, “Our study shows that giving up cigarettes may be even more important for adults in recovery from illicit substance use disorders, since it may help them stay sober." 

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William Georgiades is a former editor at EsquireBlack Book, the New York Post and the Grapevine and has written for several publications including New York MagazineVanity Fair, the London Times and GQ. He has been the features editor at The Fix since 2013. You can find him on Linkedin.