InvisALERT Solutions – ObservSMART

Addressing Nicotine Dependence in Patients with Mental Health Concerns and/or Substance Use Disorders

Tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States, accounting for approximately one in five deaths. An estimated 11.5% of U.S. adults are current cigarette smokers. That translates to 28.3 million adults in our country who are currently smoking. More than 16 million Americans are living with smoking-related disease.1 Interestingly, the rates of cigarette smoking have actually declined significantly over the past 40 years, except among those with mental health or substance use disorders.2

A man smoking a cigarette

It likely comes as no surprise to those who work with individuals experiencing mental health and substance use disorders that smoking rates among this population are high. The nicotine dependency rate for individuals with behavioral health disorders is two to three times higher than the general population.3 And smoking rates are particularly high among people with serious mental illness. People with a mental health disorder who smoke are also likely to smoke more than those in the general population, putting them at an even greater risk.4 While estimates differ, as many as 70-85% of people with schizophrenia and as many as 50-70% of people with bipolar disorder smoke.5 6 Individuals with alcohol use disorders smoke at rates between 34 and 80%. And people with other substance use disorders smoke at rates between 49 and 98%.7

Rates of smoking among those experiencing inequities in multiple areas of their lives are higher, with the highest smoking rates of those with mental illness noted in young adults who have low levels of educational attainment and those living in poverty.8

It has historically been understood that smoking is more prevalent among people with depression and schizophrenia because nicotine, as a stimulant, may temporarily reduce symptoms of these illnesses. In particular, nicotine can improve low mood and difficulty concentrating. 9 10 11 Yet, it’s been proven that smoking cessation correlates with an improvement in mental health, including a decrease in depression, anxiety, and stress, and overall improvement in mood and quality of life.12 Furthermore, research has illustrated that smoking is actually associated with worse behavioral and physical health outcomes in people with mental illness, and that quitting smoking has clear benefits, including improving mental health.13

Most people who smoke want to stop and those with mental health and/or substance use disorders are just as ready to quit as the general population.14 15 16 Smokers with mental illness and/or substance use disorders want to quit for many of the same reasons cited by others. However, they may be more vulnerable to relapse related to stress and other challenges. Smokers with mental health and/or substance use disorders report increased and more intense symptoms of nicotine withdrawal.17 18 19 20

Comprehensive tobacco control programs and enhanced efforts to prevent and treat nicotine addiction among those with mental illness and substance use disorders reduces morbidity and mortality.21 And despite the common myth that those in treatment for mental health and/or substance use disorders cannot address nicotine dependence at the same time or risk relapse by doing so, research shows that integrated treatment, with concurrent therapy for mental illness and nicotine addiction, proves to have the best outcomes.22 23 24 25 26 27

Systemic, evidence-based screening and treatment of tobacco dependence is integral to improving patient health outcomes. These standards are in alignment with the US Public Health Service’s Clinical Practice Guideline – Treating Tobacco Use and Dependence: 2008 update, which includes best practice systems strategies for organizations to use with their clientele. Systems Strategy One ensures that a tobacco-user identification system is present in every clinic. That system should include the evidence-based tobacco dependence treatment prompts of the 5A’s: Ask, Advise, Assess, Assist and Arrange. Systems Strategy Two ensures that education, resources, and feedback are present to promote provider intervention. The final Systems Strategy is to identify dedicated staff at a given provider location to dispense tobacco dependence treatment and assess the delivery of this treatment with other staff members in the office.

For more information on how to best address tobacco use, visit the Center for Disease Control website to identify your state’s tobacco control program contacts.

Kristen Richardson, RN, CTTS, is Director and Danielle O’Brien, CTTS, is Program Coordinator of the Central New York Regional Center for Tobacco Health Systems at St. Joseph’s Health in Syracuse, NY. The program is funded through a grant from the New York State Department of Health Tobacco Control Program. More information can be found at Kristen Richardson or Danielle O’Brien can be reached directly at and


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