Integrating Binge Drinking, Smoking Treatments Produce Top Results
Researchers and addiction specialists are well aware that people who consume excessive amounts of alcohol through binge drinking often also smoke cigarettes and have an addiction to nicotine. Despite this fact, treatment programs for alcohol-related issues commonly don’t attempt to address cigarette use, and treatment programs for smoking-related issues commonly don’t attempt to address alcohol consumption. However, according to the results of a pilot study scheduled for publication in May 2014 in the journal Addictive Behaviors, doctors can potentially simultaneously address both binge drinking and cigarette use/nicotine addiction in their patients.
Binge drinkers consume enough alcohol in a brief timespan to boost their blood-alcohol content into the range required to make a legal determination of drunkenness for anyone operating a motor vehicle. Men typically outweigh women and process the alcohol in their bodies at a faster rate; this means that they can usually consume more alcohol than women (five drinks or more in two hours vs. four drinks or more in two hours) before crossing over the binge-drinking threshold.
Binge drinkers don’t typically suffer from physical alcohol dependence. However, they do often qualify as heavy drinkers. Public health officials use the “heavy drinker” designation to identify people whose regular patterns of alcohol intake put them at risk for ultimately developing the symptoms of alcohol use disorder (a category of illness that includes both diagnosable alcohol abuse and alcoholism). Binge drinkers also have increased risks for other serious harms such as alcohol poisoning, motor vehicle crashes and other accidents, physical assaults and other forms of violence and several types of chronic disease.
Smokers deliver substantial doses of nicotine to their bodies with each cigarette they consume. Repeated exposure to nicotine alters normal function in the part of the brain that processes pleasurable sensations. In turn, repeated alteration of the basic environment in this brain area leads to the long-term changes necessary to create and sustain physical nicotine dependence and addiction. The clear majority of people who regularly smoke cigarettes will develop an addiction to nicotine. Teenagers are particularly liable to rapidly develop such an addiction and continue cigarette use into adulthood. While most smokers want to stop their cigarette intake, at least 85 percent of all people who try to quit without professional intervention rapidly meet with failure.
In the pilot study published in Addictive Behaviors, researchers from three U.S. institutions enrolled 95 young adults in a six-month project designed to assess the effectiveness of treatment programs that address both binge drinking and cigarette smoking/nicotine addiction. All of these adults smoked at least one pack of cigarettes a day and participated in binge drinking at least once a month. Forty-seven of the study participants received smoking cessation treatment in the form of individualized counseling sessions and an eight-week course of nicotine replacement therapy based on the use of nicotine patches. The remaining 48 participants received the same smoking cessation treatment, as well as separate counseling interventions designed to curb or eliminate binge drinking involvement. All 95 participants had their smoking and drinking habits re-evaluated during a follow-up examination conducted six months after they completed their treatments.
The researchers concluded that, compared to the study participants who received only smoking cessation treatment, the participants who received both smoking cessation treatment and a binge-drinking intervention successfully abstained from cigarette use more than twice as often at the end of the project’s main phase. Among the people who received both forms of treatment, the success rate for smoking avoidance increased slightly by the six-month follow-up, while the success rate for the people who received only smoking cessation treatment did not change. At the six-month follow-up, the study participants who received both smoking cessation treatment and a binge-drinking intervention were involved in fewer binge-drinking episodes than their counterparts who received only smoking cessation treatment. These individuals also had a lower overall level of monthly alcohol consumption.
Significance and Considerations
The authors of the study published in Addictive Behaviors believe that their work provides preliminary support for the effectiveness of combined treatments that address both binge drinking and nicotine addiction. Since the study was small, future researchers will need to conduct larger-scale projects to confirm or disprove the study’s results. If these researchers obtain similar results, addiction specialists and other health professionals may have a new option for treating people simultaneously affected by alcohol problems and cigarette use.