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Loneliness makes it easier to start smoking and harder to quit

Researchers at the University of Bristol have confirmed a strong correlation between prolonged loneliness and smoking. According to the study, loneliness causes some people to start smoking and makes it harder for smokers to quit. 

Deborah Arnott is the chief executive of Action of Smoking & Health (ASH). She said the research highlights the need for smokers suffering from loneliness to be given support – not only to improve their health and well-being, but also to help reduce their loneliness.

“If lonely people are more likely to start smoking and find it harder to quit, they are more likely to suffer the harm caused by smoking,” said Arnott.

“Smoking is the leading cause of preventable premature death, with thirty times as many people who die suffering serious smoking-related illnesses such as cancer, heart and respiratory disease.” 

While previous research has established a link between smoking and loneliness, it has remained unclear whether smoking is the cause or the effect of loneliness. 

For the current study, the experts tried a new approach. They used a research method known as Mendelian randomization, involving genetic and survey data from hundreds of thousands of people. The study revealed that loneliness leads to the increased likelihood of smoking behavior.

“This method has never been applied to this question before and so the results are novel, but also tentative,” said study co-author Dr. Robyn Wootton. “We found evidence to suggest that loneliness leads to increased smoking, with people more likely to start smoking, to smoke more cigarettes, and to be less likely to quit.”

The study produced evidence that prolonged feelings of loneliness increase the chances of starting smoking and the number of cigarettes smoked. At the same time, feeling lonely decreases the likelihood of successfully quitting. 

The findings reflect the same trends that were recently identified through surveys by YouGov’s COVID-19 tracker. The polls revealed that 2.2 million people across the UK are smoking more now compared to before lockdown. 

In addition, the results of both studies suggest that starting smoking increases an individual’s feelings of loneliness.

“Our finding that smoking may also lead to more loneliness is tentative, but it is in line with other recent studies that identified smoking as a risk factor for poor mental health,” said study senior author Dr. Jorien Treur.

“A potential mechanism for this relationship is that nicotine from cigarette smoke interferes with neurotransmitters such as dopamine in the brain.”

The team also investigated a potential connection between loneliness and alcohol use, and found no significant link.

“While the method that we used in this study has important advantages, it is also early days for this type of study. We therefore suggest further research is conducted when more is known about the genetics of alcohol dependence and loneliness,” said Dr. Treur

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) reports that during the first month of lockdown, 7.4 million people said their well-being was affected by feelings of loneliness. Individuals who felt lonely were more likely to struggle to find things to help them cope, and were less likely to feel they had a support group.

“Suddenly, the whole of the UK has become more socially isolated than ever before, and for many people this will likely increase their loneliness,” said Dr. Wootton. “We were really interested to find that loneliness decreases the likelihood of stopping smoking and we think this is a really important consideration for those trying to stop smoking during the pandemic.”

“We are still yet to see the full effects of the coronavirus pandemic on alcohol and cigarette use in the UK. Whilst our study does not look at the effects of loneliness and social isolation as the result of the pandemic, it can shed some light on the consequences of loneliness in general.”

The study is published in the journal Addiction.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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