Navy Captain Points to Study Drawing Link Between Nicotine Dependence, PTSD Risk

Stars and Stripes

August 4, 2008, Kaiserslautern, Germany – Put this in your pipe and smoke it.

Those who smoke and dip tobacco double their risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder after experiencing traumatic events, according to researchers.

Navy Capt. Richard Westphal, a mental health clinical specialist at the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in Washington D.C., mentioned the link between nicotine dependence and PTSD during a training course earlier this week in Kaiserslautern. Westphal’s comments were in reference to a late 2005 study published in the medical journal “Archives of General Psychiatry.”

“Even after accounting for genetic pre-disposition, there’s almost a two-fold increase in risk of PTSD for those that have a pre-existing nicotine dependence compared to those who do not when faced with similar exposures,” he said.

Considering that many troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan smoke and dip, their exposure to trauma could greatly increase their likelihood of coming down with PTSD, based on the study’s findings.

“We have people using stimulants to keep their edge, but the particular stimulants that they’re using increases their risk of having difficulty processing the memories,” Westphal said. “Remember, the nicotine doesn’t cause PTSD, but it creates an open door that those memories and those experiences hit the hippocampus harder.”

The hippocampus is the part of the brain that keeps track of memories, space, time, beliefs and values, according to slides in Westphal’s presentation. If the brain’s system that controls dopamine — a chemical that plays a key role in one’s mental health — is already saturated with nicotine, then the hippocampus is under direct assault, Westphal said.

The late 2005 study examined the health records of 6,744 pairs of male twins who were in the U.S. military during Vietnam. The study concluded that male veterans with a history of nicotine dependence may be at increased risk for PTSD but stated further research is needed on the biological mechanisms between the two.

When told of the study’s findings, Army Pfc. David Begley said it was the first time he heard of a link between nicotine dependence and PTSD.

“I don’t see how smoking would affect PTSD,” said Begley as he smoked a cigarette outside Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. “I’ve seen people get [PTSD] who don’t smoke.”

Tobacco cessation options are offered for troops in Iraq and in Europe, and the military recently has stressed kicking the habit, airing anti-smoking commercials from senior leaders on American Forces Network.

A recent Army analysis of 2006 to 2007 tobacco cessation medication prescriptions at Camp Cropper, Iraq, showed lackluster results for troops who received medication or nicotine patches and completed surveys on the project.

Some participants asked for nicotine patches not because they intended to quit smoking but because they wanted nicotine coverage during the long R&R and redeployment flights, according to the Army memo dated June 4, 2008.

“Although only a handful of the participants in our feasibility assessment stated they had completely quit using tobacco products (10 percent), those who did not stop altogether (49 percent) had cut down the amount of tobacco they used,” according to the memo. “Dipping or smokeless tobacco use was the most recalcitrant to change, and indeed one additional person started dipping during the period assessed.”

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