Health Team

Smoking, stress disorder a battle for some veterans

Posted December 7, 2010 5:30 p.m. EST

Off the battlefield, many veterans still wage a private war with two very fierce opponents – post-traumatic stress disorder and smoking. Those with PTSD often use tobacco to help regulate their mood or help with other psychiatric symptoms.

Researchers say they have found an effective way to deal with both problems at once.

Tobacco use has been a big part of the American soldier's war-time experience, and so is dealing with PTSD.

“What we find among veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder is that they desperately want to quit smoking,” said Dr. Andrew Saxon, with Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care System.

Up to half of veterans with PTSD use tobacco, including Walter Williams, who served two tours in Vietnam.

"Well, I started to smoke in the military. It seemed to be what everybody was doing,” Williams said.

Researchers studied 943 veterans, with half receiving smoking cessation treatment combined with PTSD care. The others received a referral to a separate smoking cessation clinic within the VA hospital.

With the integrated care, veterans were twice as likely to quit smoking. The study appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"We learned that mental health clinicians in PTSD programs are able to readily learn and incorporate tobacco cessation treatment into their day-to-day clinical practice without in any way detracting from their main mission, which is PTSD care,” said Dr. Miles McFall, with Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care System.

Researchers say quitting smoking is safe and does not worsen PTSD symptoms.

“We believe, if we can help these veterans to stop smoking, that they will have improved lives and longer lives,” Saxon said.

Williams stopped smoking and said he is taking it one day at a time.

"I can tell you this much, I'm not going to give up,” he said.

Researchers also say providing smoking cessation treatment to younger veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan may help them prevent long-term adverse health effects.