Smoking & HIV/AIDS

Posted December 8, 2015 by

It is estimated that the rate of people with HIV/AIDS who smoke is approximately three times the national average.1 This is a significant difference which begs the questions, why is smoking so prevalent among people living with HIV?

The reasons for the higher prevalence of smoking among people living with HIV/AIDS are complex, and most often stem from stigma and the tendency for these individuals to experience discrimination and marginalization within society. Stigma may impact smoking rates by limiting an individual’s ability to access non-judgemental quitting advice that fits their unique needs as a person living with HIV/AIDS.2 For some individuals, perceived health outcomes with HIV can make a significant difference in whether or not they consider quitting smoking. People living with HIV/AIDS might also experience stigma as a result of other forms of social discrimination and oppression such as homophobia, transphobia, racism, ableism, colonialism, and more. Experiencing such stigma can be extremely stressful and isolating, so it is understandable that individuals might take up smoking as a way of coping with that stress. Smoking may have also been a way to counter isolation, increasing social opportunities to form connections with others, for example joining co-workers on a smoke break.

Regardless of whether a person with HIV/AIDS plans to keep smoking, smoke less, or quit, it is important they understand how much smoking truly impacts their health. Smoking impacts almost every organ in the body, and increases the risk for heart disease, strokes, and cancers.3 For people living with HIV/AIDS the risks for these health issues are greatly increased by smoking. For example, incidents of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are more prevalent among smokers who are HIV-positive than smokers who are HIV-negative4, indicating the increased susceptibility of COPD for people living with HIV/AIDS. Additionally, people living with HIV are more likely to develop HIV-related illnesses such as thrush, mouth sores, and deadly lung infections such as bacterial and pneumocystis pneumonia.5 Smoking can also increase the risk of certain cancers for people living with HIV including lung, head, neck, anal and cervical cancer.6 Most importantly smoking suppresses the immune system. Research has shown that despite successful management of the HIV virus smoking can shorten the life span significantly compared to non-smoking people living with HIV. One study in particular found that overall, “HIV-positive smokers had twice the mortality risk compared to HIV-positive non-smokers.”7

Survey studies have indicated that many people living with HIV/AIDS desire to smoke less or quit smoking entirely. Wanting to smoke less or give up smoking is an important step on the journey to improving health. In addition to living with HIV there are many factors that impact smoking habits which can make quitting smoking challenging. As mentioned earlier, stigma, stress, social systems, etc. can impact an individual’s ability to make choices regarding their smoking habits. Habits in general can be pretty hard to change, especially when they serve as a coping method or have been a part of our lives for so long. It is important to remember that every effort in breaking a smoking habit is valuable and contributes to a healthier lifestyle. The Canadian Cancer Society says that on average it can take a smoker up to 7 attempts before quitting for good.8 There are many ways to kick the habit, and each attempt is a learning experience where an individual discovers what worked for them and what did not.

If you are thinking about smoking less or quitting, informing your friends, family, doctor, and other support providers of your plans can be helpful. They can all provide encouragement, support for staying on track with your goals, as well as having someone to listen and support you if you have cravings or experience stress. Planning ahead for situations that might trigger the urge to smoke can also help to lessen or quit smoking.

Whether you chose to continue smoking, smoke less, or quit smoking entirely, remember that it is your body and only you can make the choice.