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Here’s Why We Should Give E-Cigarettes to Mentally Ill People

Yes, smoking can kill. It can also ease stress.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Tibanna79 / Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

This article originally appeared in Substance.com:

“I want my cigarettes, I want my cigarettes, I want my  cigarettes,” Charlie Cheswick, an enraged patient in a mental hospital, screams at the sadistically indifferent Nurse Ratched in the classic film  One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. After several heartbreaking minutes, Jack Nicholson’s character, Randle P. McMurphy, breaks a window at the nursing station, grabs a carton of Marlboros and hands it to his deeply relieved comrade.

The history of psychiatric hospitals is one of abuse, neglect and copious amounts of cigarette smoking. Until the 1970s, hundreds of thousands of mentally ill people were warehoused for decades in state mental asylums. There was typically little to do, and going to the supervised smoking room every 15 minutes became an “activity” to break the tedium. Cigarettes rewarded compliant behavior or were taken away to punish noncompliance. The scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest played out daily in hospitals nationwide.

That almost  90% of people diagnosed with schizophrenia smoke—despite  tobacco’s well-known adverse health consequences—is a testament to the addictiveness of nicotine. But it is also evidence of nicotine’s power to chemically quell anxiety, depression and other upset. (The  prevalence of smoking among people with bipolar and panic disorder, depression, anxiety and PTSD is also high.)

Hospital staff have long observed how smoking markedly improves the negative symptoms of mental illness, such as  lack of motivationand pleasure, reduced emotional expression and  deficits in attention and concentration.

“Whenever he runs out of cigarettes, he becomes highly agitated to the point where he has seriously injured staff and other patients. Providing a cigarette is generally much more effective at decreasing agitation than most medications I can provide,” Elizabeth Roberson, then a psychiatrist at Hawaii State Hospital,  wrote to R.J. Reynolds in 2000, asking for free cigarettes for one of her patients.

The mentally ill remain the single-largest  demographic of smokers, accounting for 44% to 46% of cigarettes sold in the US. This market earns the tobacco industry  $37 billion annually. So it’s no surprise that the industry opposes smoking bans in psychiatric units. What may be surprising is that the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a leading advocacy group for the mentally ill, collaborated with Big Tobacco in the 1990s to block smoking bans and to implement designated smoking areas. “It is inhumane to rob these patients of their autonomy and dignity by infringing on one of the few remaining freedoms historically allowed patients,” NAMI advocates  said in 1995.

At the same time, the mentally ill also account for  half of the estimated 400,000 Americans who die from a smoking-related health condition every year. The National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors  reported in 2012 that people receiving public mental health services who have both an addiction and a mental illness die, on average, nearly 32 years earlier than others. Smoking is a major contributor to this premature mortality.

"The industry delivered carton-loads of cigarettes to psychiatric institutions. In some states, cigarettes were tax-free, “to be used for patient treatment.” R.J. Reynolds created “value” brands for “street people” and dispensed free samples to soup kitchens and homeless shelters."

Given smoking’s many dangers and few benefits, for the “normal” person, whether or not to abstain is a no-brainer. But for the mentally ill, the risk/benefit analysis is more complicated. Their health-care providers know, on the one hand, that nicotine helps their patients cope with debilitating symptoms of mental illness and, on the other hand,  that smoking causes fatal illness. The debate has polarized the mental health community. But the recent introduction of e-cigarettes—a safe nicotine-delivery device—has the potential to shift the terms of the debate.