How Smoking Can Affect Your Breathalyzer Test Results

Posted by Lawrence Taylor on August 15th, 2009

I have mentioned that a primary problem with blood alcohol analysis is that no two individuals are alike in their physiology and metabolism of alcohol (see, for example, Convicting the Average Person, Racial Differences in the Metabolism of Alcohol and High Blood Alcohol - or a Zinc Deficiency?. Further, many foreign compounds can influence attempts to measure blood alcohol levels (see, for example, Under the Influence of Gasoline?Asthma Inhalers Can Cause High Breathalyzer Results and Driving Under the Influence of Paint?.

One of many other factors that render attempts to estimate an individual’s blood alcohol concentration at a given point in time is smoking.

A scientific study has found that cigarette smoking can influence absorption by the body of alcohol and thus, among other things, attempts to estimate earlier blood alcohol levels when driving based upon tested levels. Johnson et al., Cigarette Smoking and Rate of Gastric Emptying: Effect on Alcohol Absorption, 302 British Medical Journal 20 (1991).

The researchers reported testing blood samples of a group of smokers for blood alcohol levels both after smoking and after prolonged abstinence. The result was that "areas under the venous blood alcohol concentration-time curves between zero and 30 minutes and 60 minutes and the peak blood alcohol concentrations were significantly less during the smoking period compared with the non-smoking period."  (Emphasis added)  Gastric emptying was also found to be slower during the smoking evaluation.

The scientists concluded that the effect of smoking on alcohol absorption has "considerable social and medicolegal relevance", and that the ingestion of nicotine should be taken into when dealing with alcohol metabolism.

Non-specific analysis is another problem causing breath machines to give false readings when the subject is a smoker. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Why Breathalyzers Don’t Measure Alcohol, breath machines are actually designed to report the presence of any compound containing the methyl group in its molecular structure, not just alcohol. They cannot distinguish the difference between alcohol and, say, acetaldehyde.

Acetaldehyde? That’s a compound produced in the liver in small amounts as a by-product in the metabolism of alcohol. Unfortunately, alcohol moving from the blood into the lungs has been found to metabolize there as well – and, thus, to produce acetaldehyde there. The amount of acetaldehyde produced in the lungs varies from person to person. However, scientists have found one interesting fact: acetaldehyde concentrations in the lungs of smokers are greater than for non-smokers –  far greater. Translated: smokers are more likely to have falsely high readings on a Breathalyzer.  Origin of Breath Acetaldehyde During Ethanol Oxidation: Effect of Long-Term Cigarette Smoking, 100 Journal of Laboratory Clinical Medicine 908.

End result: because breathalyzers can’t tell the difference between alcohol and acetaldehyde, a higher blood-alcohol reading.  And if you are a smoker, a much higher reading.

  • damien_karras

    Ok, all of the past comments as well as the blogs are great information. But to what purpose? Is anything being done to stop MADD and legislation from taking away our Constitutional rights? Is anyone actually willing to start a grass roots movement to combat their tactics? Are there any documentaries being made ala “Michael Moore style” which would show the public the unfairness of the current system? Are there any petitions in place? Great, we have blogs out the wazoo with people responding, “Yeah, you’re right! The current situation sucks!” But I fear no one is going to do anything out of sheer apathy.

  • damien_karras

    I would and have written my state legislators. I’ve signed the petitions. I’m willing to help make a documentary with the help of others to expose the hypocrisy and abuse of our rights as citizens.

  • standup

    I can’t help but wonder how many people were convicted of DUI that were truly below the already rediculously low BAC of .08. And MADD’s comment on that is…
    (Tumbleweeds rolling)

  • ruReadyMyFriend

    It’s not about guilt or innocence… It’s about the money!

  • damien_karras

    I had an idea kicking around for a while about how to increase NJ state revenue (as it applies to NJ), attack the REAL underlying problem concerning repeat offenders, and lessen the draconian laws imposed by legislation. I realize my post only concerns one state, NJ, but perhaps my idea could be applied to other states as well.

    For second or third offenders of DWI it’s been estimated that between the convictions of 1st to second and second to third, the driver had driven intoxicated HUNDREDS of times. To be clear on this point, I don’t mean EVERY time they were falling down drunk, they could have had a BAC of .01 on up.
    In my mind, it is insane for someone with a first DWI on their record to rack up a second offense, what knowingly sane person would engage in that behavior after going through the hell they did after the first one? There is something going on underneath the exterior of the repeat offenders that scare tactics don’t work on. Suspension for two years? It appears intimidating, but there is the percentage of motorists that will rack up a third or fourth DWI conviction after that. Why? Are they just masochists at heart?

    The State of New Jersey still, in my humble opinion, doesn’t have a firm grasp on the true problem. These repeat offenders have a sickness. A disease, if you will. Looking upon the true cause of their behavior as the illness that it is, instead of locking these people up (which is still not a deterrent, as is suspension) will lead me into my proposal.

    I propose a “traffic school” for DWI offenders. They have them for speeding where you can attend classes and get points taken off your license. Why not a scenario like this for DWI cases? I had the idea of a state run facility paid for by the DWI offenders themselves, whereupon they attend regular group therapy, meetings and educational classes (with qualified staff on hand that specialize in substance abuse). Yes, I realize that a 16 week therapy course is assigned to second offenders upon assessment at the IDRC, but what’s 16 weeks? To someone who has a real drinking problem, 16 weeks is rubbish. I propose CONTINUED therapy, education and meetings in my aforementioned state-run facility. As a side effect, the more you attend, the more your suspension gets lessened. And it attacks the REAL problem from a therapeutic base. And since alcoholism is considered a disease, wouldn’t medical insurance cover this plan as well as out of pocket?

    Would this plan also not benefit the income revenue of our state as well? I agree, that on the surface, people would attend not to solve their real problems but to lessen their suspension time. As far as a revenue stream for NJ goes, I can’t imagine a person with a two to ten year suspension NOT attending. However, I’m of the belief that over continued exposure to therapy and education, the offenders will make significant changes in their lifestyle and behavior. Locking them up with huge fines and suspensions has proven to be not a significant deterrent to repeat offenders.

    I realize my idea is not politically correct and I sympathize with anyone who has lost someone to a drunk driver. I’ve lost two loved ones to this senseless tragedy. These people will do prison time for vehicular manslaughter. My problem is this: why does the State believe that after a two or ten year suspension, a true problem drinker will never get behind the wheel drunk again?

    These are just the broad strokes of my idea, but I think you get the picture.

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