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Should You Quit Smoking and Drinking at the Same Time?

Photo credit: Anthony Tran via Unsplash

Lately, I’ve been watching old black and white films. Many scenes in these old movies feature characters drinking and smoking while looking glamorous dressed in their cocktail dress or suit. Curled up in bed watching these old movies, I’m reminded of the days (well, more often, nights) when I did both activities at once: smoking and drinking. 

Studies performed on rats show that smoking and drinking simultaneously can increase neural damage in particular brain regions. Researchers reporting in ACS Chemical Neuroscience found that the combined effects of smoking and drinking, which are harmful individually as well, led to an increase of reactive oxygen species in the brain’s hippocampus compared to the rats given just tobacco and no alcohol. 

In short, there’s proof that smoking and drinking together cause increased damage. Studies show that heavy drinking is also much more common for smokers than non-smokers. And drinking can negatively impact smoking cessation attempts. 

When a person makes lifestyle changes and decides to stop drinking, they might also wonder if quitting smoking at the same time is a good idea. Might as well phase out two vices at once, right? For people considering quitting both smoking and drinking simultaneously, know this: It can be done, and it might actually set you up for greater success.  

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What the Experts Say

Experts tend to vary on which method—quitting drinking and smoking together or one after the other—is the best. This is largely due to the fact that relapse is a factor to consider, and some believe that quitting both drinking and smoking at the same time might increase the chances of relapse. Psychotherapist William Anderson is a proponent of quitting one and then tackling the other. 

He says, “I think trying to go cold turkey on both cigarettes and alcohol at the same time could set you up for a total relapse on both if you had a slip with either. I think it would be good to break one connection first.” 

However, Dr. Damaris J. Rohsenow from the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University has a different outlook. Dr. Rohsenow is a research professor who has conducted clinical trials on drinking and smoking, and on smoking among people with alcohol or drug use disorders for about 25 years. 

She says, “It is a good idea to quit smoking and drinking together or soon after each other. There is plenty of evidence that drinking alcohol makes people crave cigarettes more, so it is much harder to quit smoking while continuing to drink. Therefore, quitting drinking may make it easier not to smoke.” 

Dr. Rohsenow also notes how studies show there is no harm in quitting both at the same time, and that “evidence shows people with alcohol use disorder who also quit smoking soon afterward had better long-term success with quitting drinking compared to those who continued to smoke.”

Evaluate, assess, and figure out what works best for you.

Simultaneous quitting is tough. Mentally prepare yourself for the possibility that this will be a serious challenge and that you will want to be equipped with the right tools, support, and mindset. 

Prepare

Don’t go into such a big lifestyle change blindly. Catherine Costantino, an alcohol and smoking cessation researcher with over 15 years of experience in the field recommends setting a specific “Quit Date” and sticking to it. 

“To prepare for a smoking quit,” says Constantino, “get nicotine replacement therapy, like the nicotine patch or nicotine lozenge or gum, or Chantix/Wellbutrin, and use it correctly.” 

Certain situations, like parties or sporting events, may be a “high-risk” environment. Arm yourself with self-awareness and avoid those situations in the beginning. 

“Make sure your high risk (HR) situations are assessed ahead of time and that you have plans to avoid, and/or alter those HR situations and make sure you have substitutes available like chewing gum, mints, straws, non-alcoholic drinks, favorite treats, fun activities,” advises Constantino. 

Get Connected with a Program

Seek out, research, and connect with a community of like-minded people with similar goals to yours. You might find that quitting both means connecting with others who are doing the same or have experience with both. There are online smoking cessation programs, including one from the American Lung Association, which have proven effective for people. Online programs for smoking cessation prove very effective. One study found that “The results [of an online smoking cessation program] provide some initial evidence that delivering such a program is feasible and may reduce the risk of alcohol-involved smoking lapses.”

If you’re looking for support for quitting alcohol as well, a number of online and in-person options exist these days. At Tempest, we offer a holistic online approach to recovery to support your individual needs as you learn to live without alcohol. 

Find Additional Support

During your quitting journey, surround yourself with sober friends or sober allies– people who, although not sober themselves, support you on your sobriety and cessation journeys. Find people with whom you can speak with honesty and share your journey along the way. Loving and supportive friends will want the best for you, even if that means it’s a different “you” showing up at their birthday. 

And, if your usual pals are heavy drinkers and smokers, you may need to take a step back from those friends to set yourself up for sobriety success. You can fill any temporary (or permanent) social gaps by making friends with other people who have successfully quit smoking and drinking. Align with people who have the same goals as you do and have reached them; then, watch yourself soar, too. 

You can also find support in formalized settings, like clinical counseling sessions. Getting connected with a mental health professional like a psychologist, substance abuse social worker, or therapy specialist is a great way to set yourself up for success and have a safe, nonjudgmental space in which to process your emotions.  

Prepare, and Plan to Succeed

It’s essential to mentally prepare yourself for the process you’re about to embark on and set yourself up for success. 

Dr. Christopher Kahler, Chair of the Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences at Brown University School of Public Health, says, “We know that people who drink and try to quit smoking are about four times more likely to pick up a cigarette on a day they are drinking compared to a non-drinking day.” This means that quitting both at once can work in your favor. 

Dr. Kahler found that the risk of smoking is eight times higher if a person drinks heavily. “I recommend that drinkers trying to quit smoking avoid alcohol for at least two–ideally 4 four–weeks after starting their quit-smoking attempt.”

Embrace Mindfulness Practices & Positive Psychology 

The benefits of meditation are widely documented and seemingly endless. While you’re stepping into the sobriety arena, consider adding meditation to your toolkit. It will help increase your mindfulness and provide a more stable and strong foundation for your sobriety. 

Developing calming techniques and self-soothing practices and rituals, like morning meditation and a hot shower before bed, can help deter a potential stress-induced relapse. Apps like Headspace, Calm, and 10% Happier are great for a beginning meditator. 

If You Slip, Start Again

As with quitting drinking alone, a slip is merely part of the process. What matters is what you’ll do going forward. Let it go and move forward if you slip up. Try again and keep trying until you get to where you want to be. Use the slips to gather information. What happened? What do you need going forward? Where would you like to change up your process?

You can do this. Sometimes, it takes many attempts. Don’t get discouraged. Just because something doesn’t work the first time, doesn’t mean you are doomed. 

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Above all, be kind to yourself in the process of quitting – whether you’re quitting alcohol and smoking at the same time or individually. This is challenging work that takes time; be kind and loving towards yourself in the process.

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