Smoking is now more likely to kill HIV patients than the virus itself

Click to play video 'Smoking more likely to kill HIV patients than disease itself: study' Smoking more likely to kill HIV patients than disease itself: study
The findings suggest that smoking cessation should be an important focus of medical professionals treating HIV patients.

For decades, getting diagnosed with HIV seemed like a death sentence. Now researchers say smoking is more likely to kill an HIV patient than the virus itself.

Major breakthroughs in treating HIV have helped patients live almost as long as their peers who don’t have the once-deadly virus. The problem is 40 per cent of HIV patients in the U.S. smoke and cigarette-smoking may be shortening their lifespan more than the virus.

The new study comes out of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. In computer simulations, scientists mapped out life expectancy for HIV patients based on treatment and smoking status.

READ MORE: Smokers who quit before 40 save a decade of their lives

“It is well known that smoking is bad for health, but we demonstrate in this study just how bad it is. We actually quantify the risk and I think providing those numbers to patients can help put their own risks from smoking in perspective,” the study’s lead author, Dr. Krishna Reddy, said.

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“A person with HIV who consistently takes HIV medicines but smokes is much more likely to die of a smoking-related disease than of HIV itself,” Reddy explained.

Men and women who get treatment for HIV at age 40 but also smoke lose almost seven years of life expectancy compared to their peers who don’t light up, according to the study.

READ MORE: A made-in-Canada health strategy is making waves worldwide – just not in Canada

But they can turn their life expectancy around by quitting: butting out by age 40 helped them regain up to 5.7 years of life. That means an HIV patient and smoker who responds well to drug therapy at age 40 can live to about 65, while former smokers could live to about 71. Never-smokers with an HIV-positive status could live to 72 or older, on average.

“We show that even people who have been smoking until age 60 but quit at age 60 have a substantial increase in their life expectancy compared to those who continue to smoke. So it’s never too late to quit,” Reddy said.

Now that the scientific community has made great strides in turning HIV into a manageable chronic condition with the help of drug cocktails, Reddy said that doctors need to emphasize the importance of cutting out smoking. It should even be worked into treatment guidelines.

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A made-in-Canada treatment strategy has become a global success story in combating HIV/AIDS – it’s even being adopted around the world. It’s called highly active antiretroviral therapy, or HAART.

READ MORE: What one non-smoking young mom diagnosed with lung cancer wants Canadians to know

It’s a cocktail of three drugs taken daily first implemented in 1996 to stop HIV from progressing into AIDS, to extend life expectancy and to reduce HIV-related deaths.

Smokers who don’t have HIV also benefit from quitting, according to research. In a Canadian study, University of Toronto doctors suggested that those who quit by 40 can live almost as long as people who never smoked.

Forty million Americans and four million Canadians smoke. Meanwhile, there are about 1.3 billion smokers around the world and 30 million young adults begin smoking each year, statistics show.

Forty per cent of HIV patients smoke – that’s double the average population.

Reddy’s full findings were reported in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.