Smoking Among Adults with Disabilities: Why It’s a Big Problem

Smoking is one of the most dangerous things you can choose to do, and it affects people from all walks of life. Although you might not expect it, adults with disabilities are particularly likely to smoke. Understanding why that is and finding out what we can do to help is essential to creating a smoke-free society.

Smoking is responsible for almost 1 in 5 deaths in the U.S., and is the leading preventable cause of death in the country. With facts like this in wide circulation, it may surprise you that many individuals still smoke at all. However, the truth is that all addictions affect people from all walks of life, and knowledge of the risks isn’t enough to prevent it. Smoking among adults with disabilities is an important reminder that smoking is a society-wide problem, and provides some important insight into why smoking is so common. Adults with disabilities face unique challenges, and these challenges actually mean they’re more likely to smoke than adults without disabilities.

Defining “Disability”

According to the CDC, a disability is defined as:

“Any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities (activity limitation) and interact with the world around them (participation restrictions).”

This includes anything that affects key areas of an individual’s life, such as movement, thinking, social relationships, communication, learning or even their ability to hear or see. The broad definition and wide range of ways people can be affected is an important reminder that two adults with disabilities are likely to have vastly different needs, and may not be equally impaired by their disability.

Smoking Among Adults With Disabilities

Adults with disabilities are actually more likely to smoke than adults without disabilities. The CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Report from 2011 provides statistics on the rate of smoking among people with and without any disability. The results show that while 17 % of adults without a disability were smokers in 2011, the rate among people with a disability was just over 25 %. This means that people with disabilities are about 50 % more likely to smoke than people without disabilities.

Other research from the UK and around the world has attempted to determine the rate of smoking among people with intellectual disabilities specifically, but the results have been mixed. Some studies suggest they smoke less, others more, and some results suggest the rate is similar to the general population.

Why Do People with Disabilities Smoke?

You may be surprised that people with disabilities seem to smoke more often than people without them. Why would that be? Although this isn’t a definitive answer, the important factor appears to be stress, anxiety and other mental health problems linked to suffering from a disabling medical condition. Simply put, being an adult with a disability is harder than being an adult without one, and this can lead to mental health issues such as stress, anxiety or depression.

If you’re an adult with a disability – regardless of which type of disability – you probably have smaller social circles and fewer opportunities than people without a disability. It’s likely to be more difficult for you to do things like play sports or take up new hobbies, and in general you’ll probably have less control over your life. The situation is compounded by discrimination, patronizing attitudes and other issues related to how people treat those with disabilities.

Use of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes are all linked to such mental health problems. This is because substances usually offer a temporary feeling of relief from psychological distress, and are therefore a tempting, “easy” strategy to help people cope with their issues. It’s easier to light up another cigarette than to make lasting changes in your life or determine what’s at the root of your stress.

Although this is especially relevant for smoking among adults with disabilities, the same basic issues underpin smoking more broadly. The stressed office worker is lighting a cigarette for the same reason as the marginalized person with a disability. The stress may come from different sources, but the problem is ultimately the same.

Helping People With Disabilities Quit Smoking

There are many ways we as a society can help with the problems relating to smoking among adults with disabilities, and successful public health campaigns in Illinois, Michigan and New Hampshire are examples of how this can be done. These mainly include raising awareness of smoking among people with disabilities as an issue, and conducting outreach activities to get anti-smoking messages to more people with disabilities. For example, in Illinois, video logs were created with the help of the deaf community to spread the message more widely.

As for the actual approaches to quitting smoking, adults with disabilities can use all of the same approaches as those without disabilities. These include medications, alternative nicotine products and behavioral counseling. If stopping nicotine use altogether is difficult, or the individual simply doesn’t want to, products like smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes offer a reduced harm source of nicotine.

Regardless of which approach you use, it’s essential to take steps towards becoming smoke-free as soon as possible. Set a quit-date, decide on your favored approach and try. Quitting isn’t easy, but with determination and support, you can do it.