This year, No Smoking Day takes place on Wednesday 9 March. There is likely to be much discussion on the well-documented health benefits of stopping smoking, including reducing damage to lungs and decreasing the risks of cancer. However, few people know of the link between smoking and blindness.

Tobacco smoke is composed of as many as 4,000 active compounds, most of which are toxic and potentially damaging to the eyes. Smokers are up to four times more likely than non-smokers to develop age-related macular degeneration (AMD), and tend to develop it earlier than non-smokers. AMD is a major cause of vision loss in the western world and can lead to blindness. It occurs when the delicate cells of the macula – the small, central part of the retina responsible for our central vision – become damaged and stop working. Smoking can impede the protective effects of antioxidants and reduce macular pigment density which is vital for good sight.

Smokers are also at greater risk of developing cataracts – a condition where the clear lens inside your eye becomes cloudy or misty and can only be treated with surgery. Smoking is a factor associated with an increased risk of contact lens-related corneal ulcers, a painful and serious eye infection and there is also a significant association between smoking and increased risk of retinal vein occlusions.

However, studies have found that people who stopped smoking 20 years ago have a similar risk of developing AMD to non-smokers, with the risk starting to decrease after 10 years of not smoking.

The College is also calling for more research to be conducted on the health effects of electronic cigarettes/Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS). Too little is known about their consequences to health and or vision to allow us to be confident that there are no risks associated with their use.

Daniel Hardiman-McCartney, Clinical Adviser for the College of Optometrists, commented: “We all know that smoking has a detrimental effect on health, but it’s important to highlight the lesser known effect that it can have on eyesight, one of people’s most valued senses. Smoking is linked with an increased risk of blindness, but if you are a smoker thinking about quitting, there is some good news. If you stop smoking the risk of losing your sight diminishes over time so the sooner you stop, the better for your vision. I would urge any smokers who are worried about the effect it may be having on their eyes to talk to their optometrist.”