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National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Putting Down the Cigarette

By Brendan McLean, NAMI Communications Manager

Studies have shown that individuals living with mental illness die 25 years earlier than the general population. Part of the reason is due to smoking related diseases. At the end of July, the Smoking Cessation Leadership Center held a webinar on the importance of quitting smoking. “Peers Helping Peers: Ways to Quit Tobacco with Rx for Change” consisted of a panel of experts from around the country, including Ken Duckworth, M.D., medical director of NAMI, and discussed the addictive power of tobacco, ways that will help people quit smoking and the role peer counselors can play.

Individuals living with mental illness are disproportionately represented among those who smoke. Forty-four percent of people who smoke have a mental illness. However, this percentage can be much higher when compared to a specific mental illness. For example, studies have shown that between 62 and 90 percent of individuals living with schizophrenia smoke. This high rate of smoking means that one-half of the 435,000 tobacco related deaths that occur in the U.S. each year are people who have a mental illness. NAMI Hearts & Minds was created to offer resources on quitting smoking and other healthy lifestyle choices that promote wellness in both mind and body.

So why is smoking common among people who live with mental illness? As Frank Vitale, the National Director of the Pharmacy Partnership for Tobacco Cessation, states in the webinar , smoking was often used as a reward in psychiatric hospitals. “The culture has promoted smoking in a sense,” he said. “I remember working in a psychiatric hospital and we were literally told to tell patients that if you take your medication you can smoke. Or if you go to group you can smoke.”

Helping individuals living with mental illness who smoke can produce a number of benefits. As described by Vitale in the webinar, there are six benefits.

  1. It can improve the overall quality of life.
  2. It can increase the length and number of healthy years of life.
  3. It can improve the effects of medication. Hydrocarbons, which are produced when anything is burned, cause the body to metabolize medications faster than you normally would. As a consequence, many people who smoke often need more medication than if they did not smoke. However, if the individual decides to quit, their clinician should be alerted so they can adjust the amount of medication the individual is receiving.
  4. It can decrease social isolation. Many people who don’t smoke are often hesitant to socialize with those who do.
  5. It can save money—lots of money. Cigarette packs cost nearly $8 in D.C. and upwards of $15 in Manhattan. Over the course of 50 years, if a person were to only smoke one pack of cigarettes a day, at $6 a pack, one would spend nearly $110,000.
  6. It helps promote recovery.

The problem is that there has been lack of focus on smoking cessation by mental health providers. Some providers believed that doing so caused an increased risk of relapse: symptoms would worsen or the individual would return to abusing drugs or alcohol. However, research has shown that there is no truth to either of these claims.

The truth, though, is that people want to quit. Nearly 75 percent of current smokers have said they want to quit and 65 percent have tried to quit in the last year. But sometimes you just need a little help. To learn more about the importance of quitting smoking and how peers can help, listen to a recording of the webinar online.

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