Scientists have been aware of the strong association between smoking and suicide for many years now. No researchers have been bold enough to state that smoking can lead to suicide, and the research doesn’t necessarily imply causation. Yet, cigarette smokers are far more likely to commit suicide than nonsmokers. This could mean that smoking makes people suicidal, but it could also mean that suicidal people are more likely to smoke.
Self-Destructive Tendencies vs Addiction Consequences
When you consider that smoking is a well-known cause of ill health and eventual painful death, it’s hard to ignore the possibility that people who start smoking do so out of a desire to self-harm. It’s even been said, most famously by the writer Kurt Vonnegut, that “smoking is a fairly sure, fairly honorable form of suicide”.1
It’s not hard to imagine that many other people feel this way as well, particularly in cultures where religion dictates that suicide is an unforgivable sin. In addition, people with psychiatric disorders (who naturally have higher suicide rates) are more likely to smoke than those who are mentally stable. This is not an opinion, the data has shown that this is true.
“In the UK, smoking rates among adults with depression are about twice as high as among adults without depression. People with depression have particular difficulty when they try to stop smoking and have more severe withdrawal symptoms during attempts to give up. … People with schizophrenia are three times more likely to smoke than other people and they tend to smoke more heavily. One of the most common explanations of this is that people with schizophrenia use smoking to control or manage some of the symptoms associated with their illness and to reduce some of the side effects of their medication.”2
It has also been claimed that attempts to quit smoking can lead to suicide. Specifically, it’s been said that those who quit smoking are more likely to develop major depression that can lead to suicide. But it has been proven that the use of certain smoking cessation drugs, most notably Varenicline, pose a “statistically significant increased risk of reported depression and suicidal/self-injurious behavior.”3
For this reason, those who have a history of mental illness would be better off quitting smoking cold turkey or using natural methods to deal with their nicotine cravings. But, obviously, it would be best to have not started smoking in the first place. Especially since some evidence has suggested that smoking may be a trigger for some forms of mental illness.
Addiction to any substance can be a risk factor for suicide. And the harder a drug is to kick the more likely that outcome. Generally speaking, addicts are six times more likely than the general population to commit suicide. And it isn’t just substance abuse that can lead to the hopelessness, despair, and thoughts of suicide caused by addiction. Gambling addicts are also at great risk for suicide, for many of the same reasons.
“As their addiction grows they are faced with the damage it has done to their lives. They experience health problems, legal problems, damaged relationships with friends and family, loss of job, financial loss and homelessness. When an addict attempts recovery it is usually after a traumatic event and withdrawal oftentimes increases depression and suicidal thoughts. They will have feelings of guilt, shame and isolation.”4
How Cigarette Taxes Are Saving Lives
A 2014 research study, out of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, found that smoking itself may increase suicide risk and that policies to limit smoking can reduce suicide rates.
As implausible as it may sound, imposing higher taxes on cigarettes can significantly decrease suicide rates. Relative to the national average, in states that have implemented higher tax rates on cigarette sales and have stricter policies to limit public smoking, suicide rates declined as much as 15%.
“The opposite was true in states with lower cigarette taxes and more lax policies toward smoking in public. In those states, suicide rates increased up to 6 percent, relative to the national average, during the same time period. From 1990 to 2004, the average annual suicide rate was about 14 deaths for every 100,000 people.”5
Cause or Effect?
No matter what angle you look at the issue of smoking and suicide from it’s easy to make a ‘chicken or the egg’ argument. There’s a ton of research suggesting that smoking/nicotine addiction is a risk factor for suicide, but there’s also ample evidence that the mentally ill are more likely to smoke. And when you consider the possibility that smoking may trigger some forms of mental illness (such as schizophrenia) it’s even harder to determine conclusively whether the suicides of smokers were caused by their addiction to nicotine or if their mental illness led them to smoke.
Either way, one fact remains clear: the act of smoking, regardless of the reason(s) why you may have started, is courting self-destruction and death.
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1Dylan Gyles. “The Honourable Suicide of Kurt Vonnegut”. Geist, n.d. Web. January 2019
2“Smoking and Mental Health”. Mental Health Foundation, n.d. Web. January 2019
3TJ Moore, CD Furberg, J Glenmullen, et al. “Suicidal Behavior and Depression in Smoking Cessation Treatments”. PloS One, November 2, 2011. Web. January 2019
4Alexander, James. “Suicide is a Hidden Risk of Substance Abuse”. National Screening Centers, June 23, 2018. Web. January 2019
5Washington University in St. Louis. “Smoking may contribute to suicide risk”. ScienceDaily, July 16, 2014. Web. January 2019
Hughes, John R. “Smoking and Suicide: A Brief Overview”. Drugs and Alcohol Dependence, December 1, 2008. Web. January 2019