If you go out to bars or hang out with friends you’ve probably noticed that drinking often goes together with smoking. Is it just a coincidence or is there something more to it?
Researchers say there’s some science to why these two vices often go hand in hand.
According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, around 30% of people who drink also smoke.
But for those who are dependent on alcohol, the number dramatically increases, with between 80% to 95% of them also being cigarette smokers. Being a drinker also increases the odds of becoming a heavy smoker (more than 1 pack a day).
And while drinking influences smoking more than smoking influences drinking, being a smoker gives you a 32% higher probability of wanting to drink alcohol, compared to someone is doesn’t smoke.
So why is it that one influences the other and vice versa.
Drinking and Smoking
Let’s start with one side of the coin, the alcohol side…
Many people who consume alcohol also smoke while doing so.
According to scientists at Kaiser Permanente’s Division of Research, the reason for this is that smoking enhances the effects of alcohol. This allows it to increase the “high” feeling that alcohol gives us.
Researchers at Baylor’s College of Medicine meanwhile observed that when rats were given nicotine before they consumed alcohol, the nicotine increased the rat’s interest in alcohol. The scientists attributed this to the brain’s pleasure center which make the rats crave alcohol.
The study also pointed out that nicotine has a long lasting effect. For rats, it takes just an hour and a half for the nicotine to leave their systems. However, even 15 hours later, the same rats still had interest in alcohol.
Aside from the interest in alcohol, there’s also what nicotine can do to offset the sleep inducing properties of alcohol.
Alcohol has sleep inducing properties. And for this reason around 20% of Americans use it to help them fall asleep.
For those who want to stay up later to party with friends or stay in the social scene, researchers at the University of Missouri found that the nicotine in cigarettes reduces alcohol’s sleep effects.
Nicotine does this by stimulating the basal forebrain, which is a small section in the front lower area of the brain.
The basal forebrain is responsible for releasing Acetylcholine, which regulates our sleep and wakefulness. When stimulated, it keeps us awake whereas, when inhibited, we are likely to fall asleep.
Together, these factors make it more likely for an alcohol drinker to seek out a puff of smoke.
Smoking and Drinking Works Too
While both drinking and smoking are vices, smoking is by far something that can cause serious health damage.
Drinking, if done in moderation still offers some benefits according to some studies. It is when you consume more than 1 to 2 drinks a day when the negative effects of drinking comes out.
The good news is, the change in societal perception on smoking, increases in the price for each pack of cigarettes, higher cigarette taxes and more smoke-free areas and laws have decreased the number of smokers in the U.S. population.
These results, which were published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, which found that from 1980 to 2009, increases in cigarette prices and more restrictions on smoking indoors reduced the amount of cigarettes people smoked.
However, social smokers, or those who smoke during social situations have increased.
The reason why people like to drink when they smoke, including during social situations is because of what nicotine does, and what alcohol offers to counter those effects.
The Baylor researchers found that while nicotine may be pleasurable in some aspects, but it also increases hormones called glucocorticoids. These are stress hormones which reduce levels of pleasure in our brain’s reward center.
This is where alcohol comes in…
For its part, alcohol, increases the levels of dopamine in our brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which sends signals to the brain. It is one of 4 chemicals (serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins are the others) that have been linked to our feeling of happiness.
Alcohol’s ability to increase the levels of dopamine gives us that feeling of happiness, pleasure and reward. It also counters the dampening effects of nicotine.
So in order to counteract the effects of nicotine on the brain’s pleasure center, we drink alcohol. The more you smoke, the more you need to drink to get that same level of enjoyment.
Both smoking and alcohol are often seen together because they work to influence one another to give you “a good time”. They counter each other’s effects as well as enhance the desire for the other.