Another Reason Not to Smoke

Does smoking cause anxiety or does anxiety cause smoking? Smokers tell you that smoking calms them down, but a 2000 study finds that adolescents who smoke are more likely to suffer from phobias, panic attacks, and other serious anxiety problems as young adults.

This study started with interviews of almost 700 young teens (with an average age of 14) in 1983 and followed them for 10 years. They lived in upstate New York, so most were white and Catholic.

When these teens were about 16 years of age, only 6 percent smoked at least 20 cigarettes per day. At the age of 22, 15 percent smoked at least 20 cigarettes per day and 10 percent had anxiety disorders. Smoking habits changed over time, and so did anxiety: only 3 percent smoked at least 20 cigarettes per day as adolescents and young adults and only 2 percent had anxiety disorders as adolescents and as young adults.

Since smokers tell us that smoking calms them down, it would be logical to expect that kids who were anxious became adults who smoked. Surprisingly, the opposite was true: it was the kids who smoked who were more likely to have agoraphobia (fear of open places), panic disorder, or general anxiety as young adults.

In this kind of study, where you can’t control who smokes and who doesn’t, there is always concern that the smokers differed from nonsmokers in some important ways, and that anxiety was really caused by these other factors, rather than the smoking. In this study, the researchers statistically controlled for all the other possible influences they could – age, sex, teen drinking and drug use, depression during adolescence, difficult temperament during childhood, parents’ education and psychiatric problems, and parents’ smoking habits. By eliminating those influences from the statistical analysis, they were able to conclude that smoking was the likely culprit.

Jeffrey Johnson, the senior author, offers us two possible explanations for their findings. First, smoking can impair respiration, which can contribute to panic attacks (and panic attacks are one symptom of phobias). Second, there is evidence that nicotine itself increases anxiety, despite the claims of smokers. Although anxiety increases when an individual stops smoking, a few weeks later their anxiety level will be lower than it was when they were smoking. This suggests that the nicotine itself causes increased symptoms of anxiety, even though withdrawal initially also increases anxiety.

Jeffrey Johnson told us that he hopes that adults will use this information to help teens become more motivated to quit smoking, or not to start. He acknowledges that fear of cancer in the distant future does not always help, but predicts that teens may be more motivated to avoid anxiety problems that could start in just a few years.

  1. Association Between Cigarette Smoking and Anxiety Disorders During Adolescence and Early Adulthood. Jeffrey Johnson, PhD., Patrician Cohen, PhD., Daniel Pine, MD and colleagues. Journal of the American Medical Association. November 8, 2000, Vol 284, No. 18, 2348-2351.