It’s a common joke that you can locate a 12-step meeting by the large group of people smoking outside the building. A large portion of those getting sober from their drug and alcohol abuse smoke cigarettes in recovery. Although each smoker differs in how often they smoke, a large portion of the fellowships of 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, smoke cigarettes.

Cigarettes are decreasing in prevalence throughout the United States as a whole, though. Thanks to hundreds of thousands of anti-smoking ad campaigns and heavier restrictions on tobacco access, the amount of smokers has decreased through the decades. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15.1% of Americans continue to smoke today. Of those who smoke, 75.7% smoke every single day.

Anti-smoking campaigns haven’t seemed to have much of an effect on the smoking population in 12-step programs, though. People used to be able to smoke inside meetings, making each room thick with hanging smoke. Due to indoor smoking bans this is no longer the case, but that hasn’t kept recovering alcoholics and addicts away from their cigarettes.

How Common Is it For People to Smoke Cigarettes in Recovery?

Due to the anonymous nature of 12-step programs, it is difficult for researchers to conduct studies. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous do conduct voluntary surveys of their members, but do not gather smoking statistics. Due to this inability to collect data, there is little research available regarding the prevalence of cigarettes in recovery.

One study done in 2007 tested the prevalence of cigarette smoking among Alcoholics Anonymous members in Nashville, Tennessee. Of the 294 surveyed, 56.1% of the members reported being active smokers. Of those who smoked, 78.8% reported smoking at least half a pack of cigarettes per day, and 60% of members were highly dependent upon them.

While it’s interesting to consider the prevalence of cigarettes in recovery in this survey, it cannot be taken as accurate data for the wider scale of 12-step program members. It would be helpful if researchers could gather more extensive data on the use of cigarettes in Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. However, as it stands today, we must rely upon small-scale studies like these to assert the use of cigarettes by members of these programs.

Dangers of Cigarettes in Recovery

Tobacco use is the largest preventable cause of death in the United States to this day, despite the active efforts of millions to dissuade use. More than 448,000 people die each year from tobacco usage, which translates to one in every five deaths in the United States. Some feel that you get sober to achieve greater health and live better. “Why would you ruin this new life by continuing to smoke?” they ask.

Smoking cigarettes while in recovery comes with the same dangers that impact any smoker. Smokers are more likely to develop heart disease and are at greater risk for stroke and lung cancer. Additionally, smokers experience higher rates of respiratory disease, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). There is no known cure for any of these diseases and many of them eventually result in a painful death.

Even before developing serious cardiovascular or respiratory diseases, there are immediate side effects of smoking. Decreased sense of taste and smell, difficulties breathing, yellowing teeth and even a lingering smell occur nearly immediately when smoking heavily. It can also affect the body’s ability to heal itself while sick or after surgeries.

Is Smoking In Recovery Worth It?

Despite the known health risks of smoking, cigarettes continue to be a popular fixture in the recovery culture. There is always someone you can bum a smoke off of after a meeting and many deep discussions occur over the haze of cigarette smoke. But is the risk of cigarettes in recovery worth it?

When those who smoke cigarettes in recovery are asked why they still do it, many respond that it’s “the only thing I have left.” After kicking hard drugs or heavy alcohol use, cigarettes are the only vice that many in recovery can still lean on. Although 12-step programs aim to wean people off of substances they are dependent upon, cigarettes and even coffee are not mind-altering substances.

When you are first getting sober, quitting smoking may not be a good idea for you. If smoking helps you stay sober then it may be a risk that is worth it. Cigarette smokers find that it helps relieve anxiety and stress, two common feelings in early recovery. Though long-term smoking for the remainder of your recovery may not be a goal to strive toward, smoking during the first few years may help you stick to sobriety. You could set a goal of when you would like to quit, perhaps on your first or second sobriety anniversary.

Regardless, you are the only one who can decide whether the benefits of cigarettes in recovery outweigh the risks and dangers. No one can tell you how to work through your program. You must make the decision for yourself.

Related Topic: Nicotine addiction treatment

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.