The relationship between smoking and sight loss is as strong as the link between smoking and lung cancer, research suggests.

A smoker is four times more likely to lose their sight than someone who has never smoked.

Chemicals in tobacco smoke trigger biological changes in the eye that can lead to eye diseases, including age-related macular degeneration (AMD), cataracts and thyroid eye disease. It can also cause poor eye health by contributing to conditions such as dry eye, uveitis and impair colour vision.

Research published in the British Medical Journal reveals one in five cases of AMD, the UK’s leading cause of blindness, can be directly attributed to tobacco consumption, equating to around 120,000 cases of AMD across the country.

Eye quit

David Cartwright, chairman of charity Eye Health UK comments: ‘Cigarettes cause blindness yet Britain’s seven million smokers are largely unaware of the dangers. Fewer than 10% realise smoking can affect their eye health. This compares to 92% associating smoking with lung cancer and 87% identifying a link between smoking and the risk of heart disease.

He continues: ‘Half of all sight loss in the UK is avoidable and smoking is the single biggest modifiable risk factor. Saying “eye quit: and joining the NHS smoke free programme will improve your eye health and significantly reduce your risk of losing your sight. After a decade or so being smoke free your risk of sight loss reduces to that of a non-smoker.’

Sight conditions

Any amount of smoking, even light, occasional or second-hand, can affect your eye health and increase your chances of suffering sight-threatening eye diseases.

Smoking increases your risk of nuclear cataracts (those that form in the centre ‘nucleus’ of the lens) three-fold, while your risk of thyroid eye disease – a condition affecting more than 400,000 people in the UK – surges by more than eight times for heavy smokers.

Smoking cigarettes has also been found to increase the risk of dry eye syndrome – a painful condition characterised by a sandy-gritty irritation that gets worse as the day goes on, dryness, a burning sensation, itchy, red or tired eyes, and, a feeling that you have some dust in your eye.

Smokers who consume more than 20 cigarettes per day may suffer colour vision defects. Nicotine poisoning can make it difficult to clearly distinguish colours with a red or green hue.

The charity has published a smoking and sight loss hub on its website (www.eyehealthuk.org) with more information about how smoking can damage your eyesight and the benefits of quitting. It also contains links for free ‘help to quit’ services such as quitnow.smokefree.org.uk.