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Smoking a major risk for diabetes patients

Margarita Persico | 10/7/2009, 5:15 a.m.

LAWRENCE, Mass. — Angel Rivera’s life changed on Dec. 24, 2007, when he was rushed to the hospital. He had excruciating pain just below his stomach.

He was diagnosed with fatty pancreas disease and diabetes. His blood glucose was measured at 994; it was supposed to be less than 100.

Rivera was surprised. According to his medical record, the cause of the illness was alcoholism, but he said he had only drunk an alcoholic beverage once in his life and did not like it.

“Just a sip with my father, when I was 14,” he said.

Instead, he believes another vice was the culprit.

“I only smoked cigarettes,” said Rivera, 39, a 6-foot-2-inch Puerto Rican man who said he started smoking 18 years ago and has tried to quit numerous times.

If you smoke, some physicians say, it doesn’t matter if you have an otherwise healthy lifestyle — you’re still at risk for a host of medical problems. Recent research indicates that cigarette smoking can contribute to the development of diabetes. And because it raises blood sugar levels, cigarette smoking can also make it harder to control the disease once it develops, according to the American Diabetes Association.

“When one has diabetes, one shouldn’t smoke,” said Dr. Trinidad Tellez, associate director of community health promotion and disparities investigations at Greater Lawrence Family Health Center (GLFHC). “… Smoking puts individuals with diabetes at much higher risk — including raising the risk of dying of a heart attack or stroke by 11 times.”

Tellez also said that smoking increases blood glucose and cholesterol levels, as well as blood pressure — all of which are particularly dangerous for diabetics.

“Quitting smoking helps people with diabetes stay healthy and live longer [and] lowers a person’s risk for heart attack, stroke, nerve disease, kidney disease and oral disease,” Tellez said.

Rivera said that stress drove him to smoke even more. He worked the night shift and was an on-call employee for a janitorial cleaning service based in Lawrence, and had trouble making ends meet.

“It’s not easy … I smoked like crazy,” Rivera said.

Rivera isn’t alone. Managing stress is one of the most common reasons that people smoke, and smokers become more aware of stress when they first kick the habit, according to the National Cancer Institute.

According to a study conducted in Japan, smoking cigarettes increased the risk of type 2 diabetes among men and women between the ages of 40 and 79. The disease was even more prevalent among men, like Rivera, who have a family history of diabetes. The results of the study were published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Rivera said he regrets that he didn’t learn how detrimental smoking can be for diabetics until after he was diagnosed with his disease. He also said he wishes he had known the importance of his family health history in early detection and combating of diabetes.

Smoking is just one risk factor for developing diabetes. The American Diabetes Association, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Cleveland Clinic and Joslin Diabetes Center have identified many other risk factors, including being overweight or obese, having a family history of the disease and race. Diabetes is more common in blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, Arabs, Pacific Islanders and people of Indian descent than in their white counterparts.