The Dangers of Smoking for Alcoholics

Man With Drink, Cigarette
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Smoking tobacco is dangerous for anyone, but it is even more hazardous for alcoholics—even those who are in recovery. Because years of heavy drinking damages or weakens the body's systems, alcoholics are more susceptible to the dangers than other smokers.

These additional health risks continue even when alcoholics quit drinking but continue to smoke. According to researchers, the death rate for alcoholics who seek treatment is 48.1% within 20 years compared with an 18.5% death rate for the general population. Of those deaths, more than half (50.9%) are attributed to smoking, and only 34.1% attributed to alcohol.

What Are the Dangers of Smoking?

Probably the biggest fear for all smokers is the risk of getting lung cancer, and there is a good reason: male smokers are 23 times more likely to develop lung cancer—and female smokers 13 times more likely—compared to non-smokers. Smoking so-called "light" cigarettes do not significantly reduce the risk of lung cancer.

Lung cancer, however, is not the biggest health threat for those who smoke. The number one killer in the United States for smokers is heart disease, according to the U.S. Surgeon General.

Putting Toxins Into Your Body

When you smoke cigarettes, you are putting toxins from the tobacco and the chemicals used to make cigarettes into your bloodstream. Those toxins contribute to the development of atherosclerosis or the hardening of the arteries. Atherosclerosis is caused by deposits of fatty plaques and the thickening and scarring of the artery walls.

When the artery wall becomes inflamed or blood clots develop, blood flow can be obstructed and cause heart attacks or strokes. Smoking causes atherosclerosis of the coronary arteries, which results in coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S.

Smoking cigarettes have been linked with sudden cardiac deaths of all types in both men and women. In recent years, it has also been associated with an increased risk of developing an abdominal aortic aneurysm.

Because smoking reduces circulation by narrowing the blood vessels, it can increase the risk of developing peripheral vascular disease: obstruction of the large arteries in the arms and legs.

Leading Cause of Strokes

The third leading cause of death in the U.S. is a stroke, and cigarette smoking has been found to be a major cause of strokes. Smokers are up to four times more likely to have a stroke than non-smokers.

Smoking as the Cause of Other Cancers

Although lung cancer is the biggest cancer threat, smokers are at risk for developing all kinds of cancers. The carcinogens found in tobacco smoke damage the genes that control the growth of cells in the body, causing them to reproduce too rapidly or grow abnormally.

Smoking is associated with an increased risk of developing the following:

  • Esophageal cancer
  • Stomach cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Bladder cancer
  • Cancer of the mouth
  • Cancer of the throat
  • Acute myeloid leukemia
  • Cancer of the cervix
  • Cancer of the larynx
  • Pancreatic cancer

Smoking's Respiratory Health Effects

Of course, lung cancer is not the only threat to the respiratory health of smokers. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is another leading cause of death in the U.S., and 90% of COPD cases are linked to smoking. An estimated 10 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with COPD, which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Female smokers are 13 times more likely—and male smokers 12 times more likely—to die from COPD than those who have never smoked, according to the American Cancer Society.

Smokers can also suffer from chronic coughing and wheezing; upper and lower respiratory tract infections; and declining lung function.

Effects on Reproductive Health

There are additional risks for female smokers who plan to have children or who are already pregnant: smoking makes it more difficult to get pregnant, and research reveals an increased risk of infertility for women who smoke.

Unfortunately, studies show that only about 25% of women smokers who get pregnant quit smoking during their pregnancies. This can result in the following problems:

  • Pregnancy complications
  • Premature birth
  • Low-birth-weight infants
  • Stillbirth
  • Infant death
  • Placenta previa
  • Placental abruption

Reversing the Effects of Smoking

There are many other health risks associated with smoking that is not necessarily life-threatening. Smoking has been found to harm almost every organ of the body, causing many diseases and generally reducing the overall health of smokers.

The good news is that quitting smoking can immediately begin to reduce some of these increased health risks, and the benefits of quitting increase the longer you stop smoking. Your risk of heart attack and stroke are immediately reduced as soon as you quit, and former smokers have the same stroke risk as nonsmokers after 5 to 15 years, according to the Surgeon General.

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Article Sources

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  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health Effects of Cigarette Smoking. Smoking & Tobacco Use. Revised 10 January 2012.

  • Goldsmith RJ, et al Towards a broader view of recovery. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment March 1993.

  • McIlvain HE, et al. Practical steps to smoking cessation for recovering alcoholics. American Family Physician. Oct. 1998.

  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Health Consequences of Smoking: A Report of the Surgeon General. National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health. 27 May 2004.