Want Better Sex? Steer Clear of Smoke

By John Reinan
HealthScout Reporter

SUNDAY, Oct. 29, 2000 (HealthScout) -- When smoke gets in your eyes, it can affect more than your vision.

Adding to the list of ills linked to passive smoke, researchers now say that middle-age men who are heavily exposed to secondhand smoke have nearly twice the risk of impotence as those who breathe clean air.

"Tell a guy that if he hangs out in smoky bars, whether he smokes or not, it's going to affect him," says Dr. Norman Edelman, a New York state pulmonologist and consultant to the American Lung Association.

Predictably, the news is even worse for the smokers themselves -- particularly cigar smokers.

The findings come from a recent study by the New England Research Institutes in Watertown, Mass. A team led by statistician Henry Feldman followed 513 men for 10 years. The men, age 40 to 70 when the study began, are between 50 and 80 now.

After adjusting for age and lifestyle factors, Feldman found moderate or complete impotence in 26 percent of the nonsmokers who were exposed to secondhand smoke both at home and in the workplace.

Nonsmokers who reported no exposure to secondhand smoke had an impotence rate of 14 percent.

"The group that showed an elevated rate was the group exposed to secondhand smoke both at home and at work," Feldman says. "A double dose of passive smoke . . . approximately doubled the risk of erectile dysfunction."

Cigar smoke is worst

For cigarette smokers, the rate of impotence was 24 percent, and cigar smokers had a 30 percent impotence rate.

"Cigar smoke has the same issues," Edelman says. "Even though you say you don't inhale a cigar, you do inhale some. Cigar smoking involves exposure to nicotine and smoke."

The highest impotence rate of all was among smokers who reported exposure to passive smoke, both at home and in the workplace. Fully one-third of the men in this group reported moderate or complete impotence.

The nicotine in cigarettes and cigars constricts a smoker's blood vessels, which reduces blood flow throughout the body -- including to the penis. And it takes a surprising amount of blood for a man to be sexually active.

"The increase in blood flow required for erection is comparable to that required by the heart for vigorous exercise," Feldman says.

Long-term aging studies have estimated that 10 percent of men between 40 and 70 are completely impotent, and Feldman says aging is still the biggest single cause of impotence.

Still, he says, "If you need another reason to quit (smoking), this is it."

Quitting can undo the damage

Feldman's findings make sense, says Dr. Julia Arnsten, an assistant professor of medicine, epidemiology and social medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

"It's logical and biologically plausible, based on what we know of the effect of nicotine on the blood vessels," she says. "I'm glad they studied it."

Studies of heart-attack patients have shown that those who quit smoking have a reduced risk of further heart attacks compared with those who keep smoking, Arnsten says.

"So if you're a man in this age group, what's the take-home message?" she asks. "It sounds like you could safely say that your risk of erectile dysfunction would be reduced by quitting smoking."

Indeed, former smokers have the same impotence rate as those who never smoked, the study says.

But quitting smoking is a prescription many patients have a hard time following, Edelman says.

"I'm sure doctors will want to use this information," he says. "Whether it will make a substantial difference in quit rates, I don't know.

"When I tell somebody, 'Keep this up and you're gonna die of lung cancer,' that should be pretty scary, too," Edelman says. "You have to remember that, for most long-term cigarette smokers, it's a true addiction."

"You can tell them all the bad things that are going to happen, and they already know it," he says.