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Cigarette Smokers May Be Trying to Relieve Mental Illness


November-December 1997

Many heavy cigarette smokers are suffering from psychiatric problems that nicotine may help to ease, according to Dr. Cynthia S. Pomerleau, a researcher at the University of Michigan's Substance Abuse Research Center and Nicotine Research Laboratory (Cynthia S. Pomerleau, PhD, "Co-factors for smoking and evolutionary psychobiology," Addiction (1997) 92(4), 397-408; Lois Rogers, "Smoking cigarettes can control mental illness," September 7, 1997, Sunday Times (UK); Jane E. Brody, "Many smokers who can't quit are mentally ill, a study finds," New York Times, August 27, 1997, p. C8).

Pomerleau cited "mounting evidence that smoking is becoming increasingly concentrated in people at risk for major depressive disorders, adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety disorders and bulimia or binge-eating." Robert West, a professor of psychology at St. George's Medical School in south London said, "There is clear evidence of a link between smoking and psychological disorders of all kinds. The association is very strong. ..."

Since nicotine influences the processing of the brain messenger chemicals serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline, the substance can either calm or stimulate, according to Pomerleau. Those with an underlying condition such as depression are more likely to relapse when trying to quit than those who do not have such underlying problems. A 1994 study by Dr. Pomerleau and her colleagues revealed that only 29% of those smokers with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder were able to quit, compared with 48% of people in the general population. West said, "If you follow what happens to smokers trying to give up, the more psychological problems they have to start with, the less likely they are to succeed."

Dr. Cynthia Pomerleau - University of Michigan, Tel: (313) 998-6430.