Researchers have known for a long time that smokers tend to drink alcohol and drinkers tend to smoke cigarettes. Now, new research indicates that adolescents who smoke are more likely to go on to abuse alcohol than their non-smoking peers.

Richard Grucza is an epidemiologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. He says he and his colleagues analyzed the data from more than 73,000 interviews collected over three years in U.S. government surveys.

"We divided adolescents up according to how much they drink, so we put them in groups as light drinkers, moderate drinkers and heavy drinkers," he says.  "We saw that regardless of how much they drank, the smokers always had substantially more problems with alcohol use and dependence than did the non-smokers."

The surveys asked adolescents about their risk behaviors in a way that insured complete anonymity, so Grucza believes the data is highly reliable. He says the survey can't prove that smoking leads to alcohol dependence, because it only looks at how the two are correlated. But he does think the two may be related.

"I think the implications are that there may be a cause-and-effect relationship here, so we really need to look closer at that possiblity," says the Washington University epidemiologist. "We've at least shown, kids WHO smoke are more likely to be on the road to addiction than kids who don't.

Grucza says this data does point to the need to prevent adolescents from both smoking and drinking.

"Kids shouldn't smoke, you know. At the very least, if they're going to smoke, the longer we can delay that behavior the better" he notes. Dr. Crucza says that we already know that.

But, he says, "it does add one potential risk to this battery of risks that we already know about and that is that it is possible that smoking directly paves the way to subsequent addiction to more serious substances, including alcohol."

Grucza adds that these results raise questions about whether early smoking does lead to addiction and the possibility that genetic predispositions to alcohol abuse may be triggered by smoking. Grucza's paper appears in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.