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Why Am I Still Smoking Cigarettes Now That I Am in Recovery?

Coffee and smoking are the last great addictions.” ~ Lara Flynn Boyle If you have ever gone into a regular 12-step meeting, you have without a doubt passed through the gauntlet of smokers sitting and standing outside partaking in what may be the only vice they have left. In fact, if you have ever attended an “Old Timer’s” meeting, they probably did all of their smoking indoors. The air in the meeting room is thickly hazy and the walls are stained yellow with years’ or even decades’ worth of nicotine. The link between cigarette smoking and substance abuse has long been known, but the actual statistics can be staggering. In a 1988 study performed by the Veterans Administration substance abuse program, the rates of smoking among people dealing with some type of addiction were astronomical:

  • 6% of alcohol abusers
  • 90% of drug abusers
  • 100% of abusers of mixed substances

Looking at data provided by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the connection between smoking and drinking is even more profoundly highlighted:

  • Currently, 80 to 95 percent of alcoholics smoke.
  • Alcoholics smoke at a rate that is three times higher than the rest of the population.
  • 70 percent of alcoholics can be classified as “heavy” smokers, meaning they smoke more than one pack per day.
  • Only 10 percent of the general population are heavy smokers.

The flip side is also true. Smokers are almost one-and-a-half times more likely to drink than non-smokers, and they are TEN TIMES as likely to develop alcoholism.

Smoking and Recovery

What about people who are in recovery from alcoholism or drug abuse? How do their smoking habits, compare with their peers who are still in the throes of active addiction? The Association of American Family Physicians has stated that 85 percent of the people who are in alcohol recovery still smoke. In fact, the AAFP is of the opinion that smokers who are in recovery may actually have a greater addiction to nicotine than those smokers without an alcohol problem. How bad of an addiction is smoking? According to Smoking and Addiction Recovery: for People in Recovery, published in 2011 by William L. White:

  • 6 million Americans are currently addicted to nicotine.
  • 90% of smokers regret starting.
  • 70% have made a prior attempt to quit.
  • 40% are either planning to quit or currently trying to quit.
  • Smokers who attempted to quit report 8-11 attempts (on average) before success.
  • More people actually recover from substance abuse or alcoholism than are able to successfully quit smoking.

Any addiction is particularly dangerous for a person in recovery because it means that the person is just switching one set of bad behaviors for another. With that in mind, let’s look at a few of the “fictions” about quitting smoking during recovery will and say if we can counter those assumptions with some established facts. Fiction #1 – “Drugs/Alcohol is my problem. Smoking is just a vice. It’s not that big a deal.” Fact – One thing needs to be made perfectly clear: an addiction to smoking may kill you just as certainly as a drug overdose or drinking yourself to death. Just as is the case with all smokers, people who continue to smoke during recovery are much more likely to suffer from lung or heart disease or cancer, especially cancers of the throat, head, or mouth. Cigarette smoking is the #1 preventable cause of death in the US, causing over 430,000 deaths every year. Between one-third and one-half of all lifelong smokers will die of an illness attributable to smoking. In fact, when you add up all of the myriad health problems that are specifically associated with smoking, you will learn that a recovering alcoholic who still smokes is more likely to die from diseases associated with tobacco than they are from problems associated with drinking. Both Bill Wilson (“Bill W.”) and Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith (“Dr. Bob”) – the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous – died of smoking-related causes. Fiction #2 – “I need SOMETHING. If I give up smoking, I will jeopardize my sobriety.” Fact – That is one of the oldest excuses used by recovering alcoholics and addicts, and they drag it out whenever they want to justify continued smoking despite all of the medical advice to the contrary. It was easy to fall for this “reasoning”, because it seems to make sense on the surface. Recently, however, research has shown that attempting to quit smoking at the same time one is trying to stop drinking/drugging does not in fact threaten that recovery. On the contrary, smoking cessation actually can improve the recovery rate from other addictions. Fiction #3 – “People new to recovery should DEFINITELY not try to quit smoking. One thing at a time.” Fact – Addiction experts actually encourage people in recovery to treat smoking like any other addiction. They counsel that smoking is a harmful compulsive activity, and as such, smokers should get help and make every effort to quit. There is another practical reason why people starting out on a sober path of recovery should stop smoking – habit. For many people who drink or use drugs, smoking was part of their daily prescribed ritual. They didn’t do one without the other. Because of this, continuing to smoke while trying to achieve sobriety can be counterproductive, because smoking can actually increase cravings for other substances that were concurrently used. Fiction #4 – “I just can’t quit smoking. It’s too hard, I’m too stressed, I have been smoking too long,… etc., etc., etc.Fact – These excuses should sound familiar. They are almost word for word the same things that the alcoholic/addict said before they were in successful recovery. The keys to overcoming an addiction to smoking are the same ones that were so helpful in overcoming other addictions.

  • Don’t try to go it alone. Smoking is an addiction, and there are any number of resources available to help – doctors, nicotine patches, Nicotine Anonymous, and materials from the American Cancer Society and the American lung Association, just to name a few.
  • Recognize withdrawal symptoms. Irritability, difficulty concentrating, nervousness, and other symptoms will all manifest themselves after smoking cessation. These symptoms can be made more tolerable when you recognize them as a part of withdrawal – very similar to what you felt when you quit alcohol/drugs. When you know that the symptoms will get better in just a few weeks, you are more able to successfully endure them.
  • Remember the lessons from recovery. You have been down this road before, and you know that there will be temptations and difficulties. Utilize the tools you have been given – call your sponsor, substitute good behaviors for bad habits, stay busy, etc. Stay focused on not smoking one day at a time, and when you need to, one hour at a time. It will add up.

Just like recovering from drugs and alcohol, giving up cigarettes can be one of the best things you will ever do for your health, your serenity, and your future. It will not be easy, but it will be worth it.