Smoking and Drinking: A Deadly Combination

Smoking and drinking are seen by many as complimentary: two habits that go hand in hand. While people who smoke are more likely to drink and vice-versa, this definitely isn’t a good idea. Smoking is dangerous, drinking is dangerous, and doing both is even worse.

Around 8.5 million people die each year as a result of alcohol and tobacco, according to the World Health Organization. Both alcohol and cigarettes represent serious risks to public health, but for many users, there is an unavoidable sense that these two habits are linked, or even complement each other. This perception may be based on a grain of truth, but smoking and drinking in combination are more likely to kill you than either one individually, but there is evidence that smokers drink more than non-smokers and vice-versa. Finding out more about the link between smoking and drinking shows why it’s a combination we should take seriously.

The Link Between Smoking and Drinking

People who both smoke and drink often say that they two habits complement each other, and feel more like smoking when they have an alcoholic drink and vice-versa. This perception is supported by studies – for example, a study looking at the socio-cultural influences on smoking and drinking found that 36.9 % of adults who were current drinkers were also current smokers, compared to just 17.5 % of never-smokers. This study used data from 1997, and it’s worth noting that more recent polls have shown less of a difference between smoking rates between drinkers and non-drinkers, though drinkers were still more likely to smoke.

This may leave you wondering why smoking and drinking appear to be so closely related. Although there isn’t a definite answer on this yet, research does suggest that nicotine enhances the pleasurable effects of alcohol, and this has been confirmed in research. Another important factor is that nicotine and alcohol work on the same brain systems, which may mean they interact when taken together. Finally, the same genes may be responsible for predisposition to both smoking and drinking, so this could make it more likely for a drinker to smoke and vice-versa.

The Health Risks of Smoking

The health risks of smoking are so well-known that they scarcely even need to be repeated. Smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, stroke, COPD, many other cancers and a multitude of health problems. It’s been called the leading preventable cause of death in the world.

The Health Risks of Drinking

Although drinking is much more socially accepted that smoking, it too carries serious health risks. Drinking heavily is known to cause mouth, throat and breast cancer, stroke, brain damage, heart disease and liver disease. While low-risk drinkers drastically reduce their risk of developing such health problems as a result of their drinking, no level of alcohol consumption can be considered safe.

The Risks of Smoking and Drinking

With plenty of risks associated with the individual substances, the fact that combining alcohol and tobacco creates even bigger risk shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. However, since these conditions have many risk factors (things which increase your risk of developing them), it can be difficult to estimate what the effect of combining smoking and drinking will be.

One area where there is solid evidence is for mouth and throat cancers. Both smoking and drinking increase the risks of these conditions, and studies show that people who do both are much more likely to get mouth cancer. Even worse, the risk of mouth cancer from smoking multiplies the existing risk from drinking, rather than just adding to it.

Other conditions – like cardiovascular disease and liver cancer – are both affected by alcohol and tobacco, but it’s unclear whether the risk is bigger than the risks from drinking and smoking added together. For liver cancer, there is some suggestion that the combined effect is worse than the sum of the individual parts, but for cardiovascular disease there doesn’t seem to be such “synergistic” effects.

Overall, research has shown that people who both smoke and drink increase their risk of all-cause death more than non-smokers and non-drinkers, or people who drink or smoke without doing the other.

Staying Safe: Reducing Your Risks From Smoking and Drinking

The risks of smoking and drinking are serious, especially if you combine the two habits. This is why reducing your risk is essential, and the best approach is to quit one or (ideally) both habits, or at very least cut back or switch to less harmful alternatives.

Quitting smoking is the more crucial goal, particularly if you aren’t a heavy drinker. There are many approaches to quitting, including alternative nicotine products like patches, gums, inhalers, smokeless tobacco or e-cigarettes, and medications such as Chantix. If you want to maximize your chances of quitting smoking, combining one of these strategies with behavioral counseling gives you the best chance.

Although there may be more of a social expectation that you will drink alcohol at some social gatherings, stopping drinking or cutting down is still important to minimize your health risks. If you can’t or don’t want to stop drinking entirely, simple tips like drinking more slowly, alternating between alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks and drinking with food can help you drink a lot less.

Overall, quitting smoking and drinking is the best thing you can do for your health, but if you can’t do either or both of these, minimizing the risks to your health should be the next big priority.