#ClinicSpeak: is it time to stop smoking?

Smokers with MS do worse than non-smokers? #ClinicSpeak #MSBlog #ResearchSpeak

Yesterday’s OMS post generated far fewer comments than I expected. Maybe this was because it was a holiday in most countries and pwMS were doing something else. I was expecting a barrage of criticism. I also challenge you to ‘Just, Do It!’ and start your own lifestyle/wellness programme. Did you? Here is another challenge; if you are a smoker, ‘Please Stop Smoking’

A big issue in MS is smoking and smoking cessation. A large number of pwMS smoke. Smokers on average have a 50% greater chance of getting MS than non-smokers and passive smokers are also at increased risk of getting MS. Why? We don’t know but one theory is that cigarette smoke may act as an adjuvant and stimulate the immune system. Another theory is that smoking alter proteins, via a process called post-translational modification, which makes them more antigenic and more likely to stimulate an autoimmune reaction. Interestingly, when you take tobacco as snuff the actual risk of MS drops. Therefore the process of heating and vaporising tobacco must alter some constituent that increases your risk of getting MS. 

Another theory is reverse causation. In other words it is not the smoking that is the risk factor but something associated with smoking. Could smokers be more likely to acquire EBV at a later age, or more likely to get infectious mononucleosis? 

Another important observation that has emerged over the last decade is that pwMS who smoke do worse; they have a more severe MS trajectory. Why? It may be because smoking continues to drive the autoimmune reaction or it may simply act as a co-morbidity and trim brain and cognitive reserve. The cross-sectional survey below suggests that ‘smoke-free years’ in pwMS are associated with less disability worsening (formerly called progression). The take home message is that if you smoke you should do everything in your power to try and stop smoking. I am aware that this is easier said than done. 

Whose responsibility is it to get pwMS to stop smoking? The neurologist or other MS HCP, the family doctor or GP, a specialist smoking cessation programme, or the pwMS themselves?  It is up to you decide and if you need help ask. A lot can be done to get you to stop smoking and to adhere to it. Good luck. 

Tanasescu et al. Smoking cessation and the reduction of disability progression in Multiple Sclerosis: a cohort study. Nicotine Tob Res. 2017 Apr 10. doi: 10.1093/ntr/ntx084.

BACKGROUND: Smoking is associated with a more severe disease course in people with multiple sclerosis (MS). The magnitude of effect of smoking cessation on MS progression is unknown. The aim of this study was to quantify the impact of smoking cessation on reaching MS disability milestones.

METHODS: This is a cross-sectional study with retrospective reports. A comprehensive smoking questionnaire was sent to 1270 patients with MS registered between 1994 and 2013 in the Nottingham University Hospital MS Clinics database. Demographic and clinical data were extracted from the clinical database. Cox proportional hazard regression was used to estimate effects of smoke-free years on the time to Expanded Disability Status Scale (EDSS) scores 4.0 and 6.0. MS Impact Scale 29 (MSIS-29) and Patient Determined Disease Steps (PDDS) were used to assess the physical and psychological impact of smoking.

RESULTS: Each ‘smoke-free year’ was associated with 0.96 (95% CI: 0.95 to 0.97) times decreased risk of reaching EDSS 4.0 and 0.97 (95%CI: 0.95 to 0.98) times decreased risk of reaching EDSS 6.0. Non-smokers showed a significantly lower level of disability in all the self-reported outcomes compared with current smokers.

CONCLUSION: The reduction in the risk of disability progression after smoking cessation is significant and time-dependent. The earlier the patients quit, the stronger the reduction in the risk of reaching disability milestones. The quantitative estimates of the impact of smoking cessation on reaching disability milestones in MS can be used in interventional trials.

IMPLICATIONS: This study provides for the first time quantitative estimates of the effects of smoking cessation in MS, essential for informing smoking cessation trials. The clear effect of smoking cessation on MS progression suggests the need to consider adjusting for smoking cessation when assessing for treatment effects in clinical trials of treatments for MS. Smoking cessation should be an early intervention in people with MS.

About the author


Professor of Neurology, Barts & The London. MS & Preventive Neurology thinker, blogger, runner, vegetable gardener, husband, father, cook and wine & food lover.


  • Perhaps I'm in a minority of one, but I found your OMS post yesterday absolutely perfect! So much so that I shared it last night with a friend who is a psychotherapist.
    I'm pleased to see from the comments that OMS is benefitting some PwMS to a significant extent. However I couldn't agree more with your promoting a wellness life-style that suits each individual. One size doesn't fit all and it doesn't condemn/trash books such as OMS to recommend life-style changes that are best described as being more generic.
    I hope your gentle reminder than quitting smoking will be of benefit finds some receptive readers. (Though as a non-smoker I know that's easy for me to say!)
    It's an indulgence weekend in the UK and I for one, will be tucking into chocolate, but with MS in mind it's going to be dark chocolate 90% cocoa!

    • OMG I've just seen all the OMS comments piling in. MD when I'm home and have a minute I'll try and find the references to the study about milk protein I need your help with this as I love my glass of (skimmed organic grass-fed) cows milk everyday, great for my bones too.
      It was something like 'a protein in cow's milk closely resembles myelin basic protein and in a small study induced EAE when injected into mice'. Curiously, reminded me of GA except that must have improved EAE 😉
      Luckily I
      a) am not a mouse
      b) have no intention of injecting milk
      However as even CD20 urged me to stop drinking milk and I cannot deny my MS is not good, please do reassure me….thanks! 😉

    • Gluten is certainly pro-inflammatory for those with coeliac disease, but luckily most people manage to process it without major problems 🙂

      and Judy, I just said what I think ;-). And that said, I am not 100% off milk either, I have a weakness for milk chocolate so I occasionally have a square. Life is too short 🙂
      But I leave most milk for those it was meant for, and that is young kalves 🙂

  • Oops, sorry CD20 I didn't think you'd find comment here! Bad blogging manners to say things behind peoples' backs 😉

    Re leave milk for young calves isn't that kinda like saying leave berries for the birds? In that, man has been herding cattle, sheep, goats, camels (!) or whatever mammals around for meat, skins, hair, milk for thousands of years. Dairy farming isn't a modern western thing, just the intensive way it's carried out is. Personally, I'd rather drink milk from happy grass fed cows from local farms than from imported soya.

    That's the point at which I did throw OMS across the room. Incidence of MS in sub-saharan Africa pretty low I think but cattle are widely loved. Or at least always have been, probably being fast replaced by McDonald's and Coca-Cola 😉

    I'm not all bad. In recognition of issues with saturated fat I have (very reluctantly) cut cheese consumption down. And also eat very little meat at all. Lots of vegan meals in fact, love that sort of food.

    I'll join with you for an occasional square of milk chocolate though 🙂

  • We have been friends with the cow for something like 10,000 years, and it is enough to look at winters in Scandinavia to realize that individuals who could not tolerate milk would not survive winters. (that is very heavy evolutionary pressure selecting for mutations allowing lactase persistence into adulthood – and African mutation is different from the European mutation – so they have invented it independently). But is 10,000 years of evolution enough to change a lot of our basic physiology? Ehm, not sure. So since I am no longer dependent on milk to survive long and nasty winters, I can happily give it a miss 🙂

    You mentioned bone health… milk has Calcium, protein and some vitamin D and should be great for the bones. But why is osteoporosis so common in the north of Europe where milk consumption is highest? milk either does not prevent osteoporosis or there are other factors that cancel its positive effect on bone.

    End of Milky Way long rant 🙂
    BTW, fun fact: Taller women are at a higher risk of osteoporotic fractures 😉

By Gavin



Recent Posts

Recent Comments