A recent article based upon a doctoral dissertation by a student at Victoria University in New Zealand created misleading headlines that could have grave implications for some people who struggle with both schizophrenia and tobacco use. The headlines “High rates of smoking among schizophrenia patients attributed to nicotine's ameliorative effect”; and “Smoking may alleviate symptoms of schizophrenia, new research suggests.” Both articles under these headlines suggested that measures intended to help people with schizophrenia stop smoking should be reconsidered.
The research to which the articles refer, is actually research done on rats, some of whom had ‘tendencies toward schizophrenia.’ Now certainly the doctoral student who conducted the research is not to blame for the very misleading headlines and storylines. In fact, she is quoted in one of the articles saying “Even if it is true (that this research might be applicable to humans) the effects of smoking massively outweigh the potential benefit,” and she goes on to rightly say that schizophrenics lose 17 more years of life than mentally healthy counterparts, mostly due to smoking.
And, in fact, research on human beings who suffer with schizophrenia demonstrates that they, and others with serious mental illness can stop smoking. People with serious mental illness can experience many potential benefits from stopping smoking such as reductions in anxiety, depression, and stress, some of the medications used to treat schizophrenia will work better and can be administered in lower doses, they will be financially better off, and they will be much less likely to die from the awful illnesses caused by smoking. Possibly the biggest reason that people with schizophrenia have a more difficult time stopping smoking is that they need more support and treatment, not less.
So the lesson to me is, read below the headlines. The stigmatization of people who have schizophrenia suggested by these headlines, that they are too ill to receive treatment for the addiction that is most likely to cause them illness and death, is wrongheaded and deadly.