ADHD News & Research

Psychiatric Disorders Are on the Rise Among Young Smokers

Young smokers may be more prone to psychiatric disorders, and may be more likely to become dependent on nicotine.

February 11, 2016

Though fewer Americans are smoking than ever before, young smokers are more likely to be dependent on nicotine — and more likely to suffer from one or more psychiatric disorders — than older generations, a new study finds.

The study, conducted at the Columbia Medical University Center (CMUC), looked at more than 25,000 people who had completed the Alcohol Use Disorder and Associated Disabilities Interview Schedule — DSM-IV Version. Researchers divided subjects by the decade they were born in — from the 1940s to the 1980s — and further categorized them as “nonsmokers,” “never-dependent smokers,” or “ever-dependent smokers,” depending on self-reported levels of dependency.

The percentage of people who smoked fell with each decade, researchers said, syncing up to a nationwide pushback against tobacco dependency, particularly among younger generations. But the percentage of smokers who were physically or mentally addicted to nicotine increased dramatically — from 30.8 percent of smokers born in the ’40s to 70.4 percent of those born in the ’80s — as did the percentage who suffered from drug addiction, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and antisocial personality disorder.

Substance abuse disorders increased for all smokers, not just those who were addicted to nicotine. But for other psychiatric disorders, like bipolar disorder and ADHD, the association was seen only with smokers who were nicotine-dependent. These patterns remained even after researchers adjusted for race, sex, and socioeconomic status.

Ardesheer Talati, Ph.D., the lead researcher on the study, says that this group of smokers with psychiatric disorders was always present, but that, in earlier decades, psychologically at-risk smokers were hidden by the ubiquity of smoking.

“The group of vulnerable people has always existed, but what we are saying, perhaps, is that many decades earlier, the vulnerable people were not isolated within smoker groups the way they are now or to the extent they are now,” he said.

Talati emphasized that psychiatric disorders don’t cause smoking, nor vice versa. Rather, researchers may be able to use these trends to screen for mental disorders earlier among young smokers — perhaps increasing their chances of receiving proper care.

“What it seems to be more is a marker,” Talati said. “Let’s say you have two people in a room and one is a 55-year-old and he or she is a smoker, and you have an 18-year-old who’s a smoker. For the 18-year-old, you might be more inclined to do a more substantial screen, because that’s the age when you can intervene and have more of an effect.”

When it comes to older smokers, he added, “If they’ve been smoking since they were in their teens, they may be at higher risk for things like lung cancer or heart disease — but they may not necessarily be at higher risk for psychopathology.