Thanks to Surgeon General's Warning labels, public smoking bans, strict regulation of advertising, excise taxes, and public service messages, nearly everyone in America is fully aware of the many health risks associated with cigarette smoking. Ongoing research has continuously proven that smoking causes lung dysfunction, cancer, SIDS, heart disease, birth defects, preterm birth, and other serious health problems. Knowing this, the idea that cigarette smoking may offer health benefits may seem utterly absurd.
However, cigarette smoking has been confirmed to provide numerous benefits to the health of smokers. Surprisingly, the tobacco plant appears to have more to offer our bodies than a guarantee of certain death. Although the health benefits of smoking are far outweighed by the many very dire risks, tobacco may provide alternative relief or prevention for some diseases in certain individuals.
The most fascinating and widely recognized health benefit of smoking is its ability to seemingly alleviate symptoms of mental illnesses, including anxiety and schizophrenia. According to an article published in 1995 in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, schizophrenics have much higher smoking rates than people with other mental illnesses, and appear to use it as a method of self-medicating. The article postulates that nicotine found in cigarettes reduces psychiatric, cognitive, sensory, and physical effects of schizophrenia, and also provides relief of common side effects from antipsychotic drugs.
The treatment of schizophrenia isn't the only positive effect that nicotine has on the brain. A series of very interesting studies from multiple academic sources confirms that the risk of Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease is surprisingly higher in non-smokers than in smokers. Doctor Laura Fratiglioni of Huddinge University Hospital in Sweden states, "Cigarette smokers are 50% less likely to have PD or AD than are age and gender-matched nonsmokers [...] cigarette smoking exerts an undefined, biologic, neuroprotective influence against the development of PD and AD."
The University of Melbourne confirmed the claims made by many smokers that tobacco itself is a strong appetite suppressant, and many use it to self-treat compulsive overeating disorders or obesity. Many smokers experience weight loss and decreased appetite after they begin smoking, and the Melbourne study found similar results in lab rats and mice exposed to cigarette smoke. While tobacco-influenced pharmaceuticals may at some point be an available option to treat obesity, smoking as a self-treatment is very ill-advised, since the negative effects of tobacco and obesity tend to compound and create interrelated conditions.
Cigarette smoking has also been linked to a decrease in risk of certain inflammatory disorders, since nicotine itself appears to be an anti-inflammatory agent. The department of gastroenterology at the University Hospital of Wales conducted a number of in-vitro studies to confirm and explain the decreased risk in ulcerative colitis (a potentially severe digestive disorder) in individuals who smoke cigarettes.
Perhaps most shockingly, tobacco smoke's anti-inflammatory effects may actually provide some benefits to children who are exposed to secondhand smoke. While this is certainly not worth at-home experimentation, one astonishing study conducted in Sweden observed two generations of Swedish children and found that the children of smokers had lower rates of allergic rhinitis, allergic asthma, atopic eczema, and food allergies. The studied groups included 6909 adults and 4472 children, and the findings remained consistent, even when adjusted to reflect other variables.
Other surprising academic findings reveal that tobacco may have a positive effect on pregnancy, although this, too, should not be left up to individual experimentation. A study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology revealed that preeclampsia, an extremely common but potentially deadly condition, is significantly less common in expectant mothers who smoke cigarettes than in expectant mothers who do not smoke.
While it is undebated that tobacco cigarettes pose a number of deadly hazards to human health, they also reveal a surprising link to decreased mortality and morbidity for some conditions. While it may be interesting to note tobacco's few benefits, it is also critical for all consumers to recognize that its positive aspects are few compared to its many very serious risks. Even taking the health benefits of smoking into account, tobacco smokers can expect to live shorter lives and experience many chronic diseases.
If you believe you have, or are at risk for, a medical condition that can be treated or prevented with tobacco use, do not use this as a reason to begin smoking or to avoid smoking cessation. However, talk to your doctor about pharmaceutical or botanical solutions that may yield similar benefits, without the risks associated with tobacco. Emerging research may soon reveal an ability to synthesize and isolate the few positive chemicals in cigarettes and use them to manufacture new treatment options.
Smoking and Parkinson's and Alzheimer's Disease: Review of the Epidimiological Studies. Brain Behav. Res. 2000 Aug;113(1-2):117-20.
Nicotine Use in Schizophrenia: The Self-Medication Hypothesis. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. Volume 29, Issue 6. 2005; 1021-1034
Nitric Oxide Mediates Therapeutic Effect of Nicotine in Ulcerative Colitis. Ailment Pharmacol Ther. 2000 Nov;14(11):1429-34.
Urinary Cotinine Concentration Confirms the Reduced Risk of Preeclampsia with Tobacco Exposure. Am J Obstet Gynecol 1999;181:1192-6
Cigarette Smoking Can Dramatically Affect Appetite and Weight Control. News-Medical.net. Monday, 1-Nov-2004.
FDA: Anti-smoking drugs can make you crazy. Los Angeles Times. July 1, 2009.