Popular notion holds that people who are trying to stop smoking often increase their alcohol intake as a way of compensating. A new study published in BMC Public Health, however, suggests this may not be the case.

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Researchers found recent attempts to quit smoking were linked to reduced alcohol intake.

Lead author Jamie Brown, of University College London in the United Kingdom, and colleagues found that adults who have attempted to quit smoking in the past week consume less alcohol than smokers who have not tried to quit.

While smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, with around 40 million American adults currently smoking cigarettes, 70 percent of smokers say they want to quit the habit.

As a way of helping the quitting process, health officials recommend reducing alcohol intake or abstaining from it altogether.

According to the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, drinking alcohol can act as a smoking trigger for some people, hindering their attempts to shun the cigarettes.

However, previous studies have suggested quitting smoking can increase alcohol consumption, fueling the widely held belief that people use alcohol as a way of compensating for their lack of cigarettes.

But Brown and colleagues suggest this notion may be wrong, and that smokers who are trying to quit may actually be taking note of recommendations to lower alcohol intake.

To reach their findings, the team analyzed the results of household surveys, which included 31,878 individuals from England aged 16 and older.

Between March 2014 and September 2015, 6,278 of the respondents reported smoking. Of these, 144 had tried to quit smoking in the week prior to completing the survey.

Fast facts about smoking
  • Almost 17 percent of adults in the U.S. currently smoke
  • Smoking accounts for around 480,000 deaths in the U.S. each year
  • Around 16 million Americans are living with a smoking-related disease.

How to quit smoking

As part of the survey, subjects completed the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test consumption questionnaire (Audit-C), and the researchers used this information to compare the alcohol intake of smokers who had and had not tried to quit in the past 7 days.

Compared with smokers who had not attempted to quit in the past week, those who had tried to quit smoking reported lower overall alcohol intake, lower levels of binge drinking, and they were more likely to be deemed “light drinkers.”

Because the study was observational, the researchers say they are unable to establish cause and effect – that is, they cannot conclude that smoking itself reduces alcohol consumption.

They note that it is possible smokers who are trying to quit intentionally lower their alcohol intake in order to avoid relapse, or it may be that people who consume less alcohol in the first place are more likely to quit smoking.

“We can’t yet determine the direction of causality. Further research is needed to disentangle whether attempts to quit smoking precede attempts to restrict alcohol consumption or vice versa,” says Brown.

“We’d also need to rule out other factors which make both more likely. Such as the diagnosis of a health problem causing attempts to cut down on both drinking and smoking.”

Still, the researchers believe their findings indicate that smokers who try to quit may not necessarily reach for that beer or glass of wine as a way of filling the cigarette void.

These results go against the commonly held view that people who stop smoking tend to drink more to compensate. It’s possible that they are heeding advice to try to avoid alcohol because of its link to relapse.”

Jamie Brown

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