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In today’s society, those living with HIV can live just as long as those who don’t have HIV. This can sometimes make it easy to forget the risks the disease poses.

If you have always been a smoker, lighting up a cigarette might  seem like no big deal, but the harmful effects of smoking are well-documented. To someone living with HIV, they pose even more of a threat.

Studies show that the dangers of smoking are significantly increased when you have HIV. This is true even if the HIV is under control with medication.

With HIV now easy to manage with antiretroviral drugs, why would anyone jeopardize their health by smoking? Why not kick the smoking habit for good? What better time than the New Year when everyone makes New Year’s resolutions?

This is much easier said than done. Smoking is addictive and very entrenched in many communities of people with HIV. This is precisely why the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are encouraging people with HIV to quit smoking. They even use the story of an HIV-positive man named “Brian” to get their message across.

Rebounded from HIV and Had a Stroke

Brian is one of several real people used in the CDC’s “Tips from Former Smokers” campaign. HIV was recently added to the list of chronic conditions to target with anti-smoking messages. Other diseases include asthma, cancer, COPD, and cardiovascular disease. Pregnant women are also involved in the CDC’s social media push.

Brian is a 43-year-old male who wound up in the hospital after being diagnosed with HIV. It wasn’t long before his doctors had the disease under control. He rebounded and went back to work. After this experience, Brian felt invincible. The last thing on his mind was quitting smoking, something he’d done for 30 years or more.

Until Brian had a stroke and almost died.

“We know from a large surveillance project running here that the prevalence of smoking among people with HIV in care is about 42 percent,” said Dr. John T. Brooks, an HIV specialist with the CDC. Smoking does impair CD4 cells in a way that can be bad for you,” Brooks said. “It increases the risk of certain pneumonias, for example.”

CD4-T-cells or “helper cells” assist the body in fighting infections such as pneumonia. For people living with HIV, pneumonia can be dangerous and is one of the leading causes of death. In fact, the level of CD4 cells in the body is a good indicator of whether or not their HIV is under control.

Inflammation’s role in people with HIV has recently been studied. “Just having an HIV infection produces a chronic state of inflammation,” Brooks said.

It is interesting that inflammation has already been linked to other conditions that affect smokers, like heart or lung disease, certain types of cancers, and lower bone density. “If you have HIV and smoke, you’re getting hit from both directions with this inflammatory problem,” Brooks said.

HIV-Positive and Smoking: Just How Dangerous Is It?

Long ago it was established that smoking can lead to an early demise. Since HIV can as well, the two combined create a powerful, more deadly punch.

In a recent Danish study in which patients got top-of-the-line HIV care, including free medication, HIV positive smokers lost more years of life from smoking than from HIV.

In that study, a person with HIV lost five years of life to the disease. A smoker without HIV lost about 4 years of life to smoking, as a comparison, while the person with HIV who also smoked lost a total of 12 years of their life.

“If a person’s HIV is under control, the risk of smoking remains and becomes a greater and often leading preventable risk for illness and death,” Brooks said.

HIV Patients Want to Quit Smoking

Surveys say that two-thirds of HIV patients who smoke want to quit. It is difficult for anyone to stop this habit.

Doctors can help by initiating the conversations with their patients. Talk to them about quitting. Unfortunately, HIV specialists are rarely trained to provide that kind of care.

At this point, there is a shift toward people with HIV getting care from doctors in a family and general practice. This move toward primary care providers has some HIV experts concerned about the care patients receive, but in some ways, it could be better.

“Smoking cessation is a cornerstone of their training,” Brooks said of primary care doctors. “Now they can be in a care setting where providers pay a lot more attention with the other things in your life.”

It is Brooks’ hope that more doctors who treat HIV will start to provide smoking cessation counseling. It is why AIDS Resource has added a smoking cessation program to their roster of services.

The best part is that the Affordable Care Act requires insurance providers to provide smoking cessation counseling at no cost to the patient.

CDC Social Media Campaign is Working

The CDC ’s campaign “Tips from Former Smokers” is definitely working.

After only 12 short weeks of the campaign, an estimated 1.64 million Americans had made an attempt to quit, with an estimated 100,000 seemingly successful. Another 6 million non-smokers also spoke to their friends and family about the dangers of smoking.

Calls to the CDC’s anti-smoking hotline 1-800-QUIT-NOW  rose by 75 percent during the “Tips” campaign.

Learn more about the CDC’s campaign here.

AIDS Resource has its own smoking cessation program that is very helpful and targeted specifically towards helping those living with HIV. You can contact us here for more information.

Will you make the commitment to stop smoking in 2019?