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Bartenders suspected it: Alcohol enhances nicotine

Observations are now backed by research, which could lead to new anti-smoking therapies.

March 29, 2004|Melissa Healy | Times Staff Writer

As notorious pairings go, it's up there with Bonnie and Clyde.

Cigarettes and alcohol "taste" good together, as almost any smoker will tell you. Easing into a drink, for many smokers, is inseparable from the act of lighting up. It's the reason a cocktail party can wither the resolve of someone who is trying to quit smoking.

It's why a lighter is an indispensable tool for any self-respecting barkeep -- except in California and six other states, where smoking in bars and restaurants has been banned in recent years.

And now, it's been established by medical science too: Even a small amount of alcohol increases the pleasurable effects of nicotine, according to a study released last week by Duke University researchers. Smokers participating in a study needed only a wee dram -- much less than it would take to make them drunk -- to report that their enjoyment of nicotine's effects increased significantly, said Jed Rose, director of Duke's Nicotine Research Program.

If Rose's study subjects were served a "placebo" (fruit juice disguised with a whiff of pure alcohol to fool the drinker) the cigarette that followed just didn't satisfy as well. Neither did it provide subjects the same satisfying glow if they got a real drink but smoked a non-nicotine cigarette instead of their usual brand.

Those findings, say Rose, underscore that it's the nicotine itself, rather than the motions of smoking, that interacts with alcohol to light up the pleasure centers of the brain. Establishing a link between alcohol and nicotine, Rose adds, may lead to new approaches that help heavy drinkers quit smoking.

To bartenders and barflies everywhere, the connection between booze and butts is not news. "It's true," says Posie Hammons, owner and barkeep of the Blue Mule Saloon in Las Vegas, and a smoker. "They come in, they light their cigarette and they order a drink. The more they drink, the more they smoke.... Smoking and drinking goes hand in hand."

Indeed it does. In the United States, 80% to 90% of alcoholics smoke cigarettes -- a rate three times higher than in the general population. And cigarette smokers are 10 times more likely than nonsmokers to be alcoholics.

Rose, who was co-creator of the nicotine patch while at UCLA in the 1980s, is working with an Irish firm, Avon Pharmaceuticals, to develop a newer patch that could help break the connection between drinking and smoking.

The patch Rose is helping develop will include nicotine and a drug called Mecamylamine, which was used in the 1950s to treat high blood pressure. When subjects in Rose's experiment were given Mecamylamine, they reported that it dampened the pleasure of smoking cigarettes and also cut the urge to have another drink.

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