People who struggle with mood problems or alcohol and drug addiction have a rosier outlook if they quit smoking, a new study has found.
Cutting out smoking, or cutting down on the number of cigarettes smoked led patients to be less likely to have psychiatric problems or problems with alcohol and drug addiction.
The Washington University researchers used data from 4,800 daily smokers out of two surveys of the same group of 35,000 people conducted in the early 2,000s.
The two surveys were three years apart - and the researchers found that those who had addiction or other psychiatric problems at the time of the first survey were less likely to have those same problems three years later if they had quit smoking.
Even people who hadn't had psychiatric problems at the initial survey were less likely to develop those problems later if they already had quit.
Among the group surveyed 40% of the daily smokers suffered mood or anxiety disorders or had a history of these problems. Around 50% of daily smokers had alcohol problems, and 24% had drug problems.
The research, by Washington University School of Medicine, found that, contrary to long-held beliefs that allowing patients to smoke is harmless, people with mood disorders can safely quite - and that their mental health often improves as a result.
"Clinicians tend to treat the depression, alcohol dependence or drug problem first and allow patients to 'self-medicate' with cigarettes if necessary," said lead investigator Patricia Cavazos-Rehg, PhD.
"The assumption is that psychiatric problems are more challenging to treat and that quitting smoking may interfere with treatment."
Forty-two percent of those who had continued smoking during the years between the two surveys suffered mood disorders, compared with 29% of those who quit smoking.
Alcohol problems affected 18% of those who had quit smoking versus 28 percent who had continued smoking - drug problems affected only 5 percent of those who had quit smoking compared with 16 percent of those who had continued smoking.
Instead, health professionals should work with patients to quit, Cavazos-Rehg says.
“We don't know if their mental health improves first and then they are more motivated to quit smoking or if quitting smoking leads to an improvement in mental health," Cavazos-Rehg said.
"But either way, our findings show a strong link between quitting and a better psychiatric outlook."
In addition, she believes the serious health risks associated with smoking make it important for doctors to work with their patients to quit, regardless of other psychiatric problems.
"About half of all smokers die from emphysema, cancer or other problems related to smoking, so we need to remember that as complicated as it can be to treat mental health issues, smoking cigarettes also causes very serious illnesses that can lead to death," she said.
"We really need to spread the word and encourage doctors and patients to tackle these problems," Cavazos-Rehg said. "When a patient is ready to focus on other mental health issues, it may be an ideal time to address smoking cessation, too."