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Commentary: tobacco use and mental health are overlooked burdens

SPH's Jeffrey Drope, PhD, writes about a newfound association between tobacco use and mental health from data in the Tobacco Atlas.

Jeffrey Drope photo

The COVID-19 pandemic compelled the world to acknowledge mental health struggles more than ever before, especially among youth. By the time a 2021 JAMA Pediatrics study examined the pandemic’s toll on children and adolescents, the reported prevalence of anxiety and depression had doubled prepandemic estimates. But many others are suffering too. Data show an epidemic of loneliness among seniors grew worldwide amid lockdowns and quarantines, and LGBT+ people globally experienced increased rates of poor mental health.

Newly published material from the Tobacco Atlas — an online resource that examines the tobacco epidemic and offers proven solutions — demonstrates an association between mental health and smoking. The atlas cites a 2017 study that found that the prevalence of smoking among adults with any mental illness in the United States was 33.3%, compared to 20.7% for those without mental illness. That translates to millions of people experiencing the dual burden of mental illness and tobacco use. There hasn’t been nearly enough research around the world into the way these epidemics overlap, but the implications of extrapolating the U.S. statistics are a concern.

To combat this underattended comorbidity, public health experts must cut across specialties and connect smart tobacco-control interventions with treatment for mental health. And the advocates for tobacco control and for mental health will need to work together to lobby for broadly protective policies, such as more aggressive taxation and smoke-free mental health facilities. These efforts could ease compounding health burdens for millions and lessen the costs associated with their care. Action is both morally imperative and economically sound.

Read the full commentary

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