Cigarette smoking is a risk factor for so many serious illnesses like lung cancer and heart diseases. These are well known to the general public. According to research presented this week at the American College of Rheumatology Annual Scientific Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa; cigarette smoking also leads to rheumatic diseases and renders treatment less effective. Three studies reconfirm or add to the growing number of health risks associated with cigarette smoking.

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is a chronic disease that causes pain, stiffness, swelling, and limitation in the motion and function of multiple joints. Though joints are the principal body parts affected by RA, inflammation can develop in other organs as well. An estimated 1.3 million Americans have RA, and the disease typically affects women twice as often as men. The scenario may be similar in India too. Previous studies have established that smoking is a risk factor for RA. Two independent research teams out of Sweden recently looked at the role that smoking plays in the development of RA and in the response to treatment of the disease.

The first study focused on the development of RA involved 172 patients; primarily women (mean age: 63 years old at the time of diagnosis) – who were included in a community-based health survey that took place between 1991 and 1996. “The main strength of this study was the fact that smoking and other lifestyle factors were measured before disease onset”, says Carl Turesson, associate professor, Malmö University Hospital, Malmö, Sweden, and lead investigator in the study. “Our data confirm that smoking is a risk factor for RA, and provide further insight on the impact of smoking on disease mechanisms.”

Another group of researchers focused on what happens when people with RA smoke, while being treated for the disease simultaneously. They studied information related to 1,756 RA patients and noted whether each person was a non-smoker, previous smoker but now quit or was a current smoker; at the time of diagnosis. “The findings of this study indicate that RA patients who smoke have increased risk of not getting better on the standard first line treatment for RA, namely methotrexate,” explains Saedis Saevarsdottir, MD, PhD; rheumatology unit, Karolinska University Hospital, Stockholm, Sweden, and lead investigator in the study. “Moreover, those who needed the immunologically designed anti-TNF drugs, which are now the second-line treatment of choice for those who do not respond to methotrexate, also risked having poor effect of this expensive medication if they smoked.”

The third study looked at how smoking could be associated with more disease activity as well as organ damage in people with systemic lupus erythematosus. Systemic lupus erythematosus, also called SLE or lupus, is a chronic inflammatory disease that can affect the skin, joints, kidneys, lungs, nervous system, and/or other organs of the body. The most common symptoms include skin rashes and arthritis, often accompanied by fatigue and fever. Lupus occurs mostly in women, typically developing in individuals in their twenties and thirties – prime child-bearing age. Researchers pulled out information from a study on health-related quality of life in 216 patients with lupus who had been seen in the rheumatology clinic of a U.S. hospital between September 2006 and April 2008. Results led researchers to conclude that smokers do have higher disease activity and damage to organs.

Message: Quit smoking if you don’t want to get Rheumatic illnesses like Rheumatoid arthritis and also quit smoking if you have already developed these diseases as controlling these diseases will be very difficult otherwise.