I have a friendwho labels herself a “sort of” cigarette smoker. She hardly ever buys cigarettes and never smokes by herself. She only lights up when she’s out with other people.
About 25% of smokers in the United States don’t smoke every day.1 They’re often referred to as “light” smokers. For daily smokers trying to quit, cutting down to smoking occasionally may be a step towards quitting completely.1 For others, a pattern of light smoking may be the beginning of a bigger habit. 1
Some light smokers may be identified as “social” smokers, which is common among college students in the USespecially when alcohol is involved. 2,3 Social smoking refers to patterns of smoking only around others in a social situation, like at parties or bars. 3
What could happen by lighting up a few times per week?
Most people could tell you about the health risks associated with smoking regularly. But what about “social smoking?” Doctors say that there is no safe level of tobacco use. Smoking only a few times per week is not as bad for you as smoking every day. 1,4 But, it is not good for you by any means. People who smoke occasionally are still at increased risk for cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, and certain cancers compared to those who do not smoke. They are also at higher risk for respiratory infections, slower recovery from injuries, delayed contraception in women, and poorer sperm function in men.1 Social smokers may also be exposed to high levels of second hand smoke, which can lead to the same negative health outcomes and health conditions that any smoker faces.
People taking birth control pills should be extra cautious about cigarettes. Smoking on the pill leads to an increased risk of blood clots, heart attacks, high blood pressure, and stroke.5 Some researchers believe that smoking can decrease the effectiveness of oral contraceptives and may even lead to more breakthrough bleeding. 5
Are social smokers addicted?
There is conflicting research about whether occasional smokers are addicted to nicotine. Some studies have shown that social smokers can go long periods of time without any withdrawal symptoms, while other researchers suggest that even occasional smoking may lead to changes in the body and the brain that could lead to chemical dependence. 3 Some research has documented urges and cravings in light smokers.3 What we do know is that nicotine and smoking have the potential to be powerfully addicting—physically, emotionally, and behaviorally.
Is it hard to stop social smoking?
All long-term smokers started somewhere; in some cases, smoking socially is just the beginning of a more regular pattern of cigarette use that will continue for a lifetime. There is evidence to support that theory: one study found that about half of social smokers studied were smoking more regularly within a year.6 On the other hand, many social smokers will either eventually quit or maintain their occasional smoking behavior. Most social smokers may believe that they can quit at any time they want. But don’t take that for granted –doctors warn that even for social smokers, quitting may not be easy. 4
Do you want to stop smoking?
If you’re a regular or social smoker and you want to quit, there are places to get help and support as you become tobacco free
QuitlineNC: QuitlineNC provides free cessation services to any North Carolina resident who needs help quitting tobacco use. Quit Coaching is available in different forms, which can be used separately or together, to help any tobacco user give up tobacco.
UNC Campus Health: Physicians in the medical clinic and counselors at Counseling and Wellness are available to help you make a plan to quit.
You can also check out a personal story about quitting smoking here.
- Harvard Heart Letter. (2010). Light and Social Smoking. Retrieved from http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Heart_Letter/2010/November/light-and-social-smoking-carry-cardiovascular-risks
- Moran, S., Wechsler, H., Rigotti, N.A. (2004). Social smoking among US college students. Pediatrics, 114:4, 1028-1034.
- Schane,R.,Glantz, S.A., Ling, P.M. (2009). Nondaily and social smoking: An increasingly regular pattern. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(19):1742-1744. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2009.315.
- DeNoon, D. Can You Get Away with Social Smoking? WebMD. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/smoking-cessation/features/can-you-get-away-with-social-smoking
- Columbia University Go Ask Alice. (2005). The birth control pill and smoking. Retrieved from http://goaskalice.columbia.edu/birth-control-pill-and-smoking
- Columbia University Go Ask Alice. (2004). Is Social smoking really all that bad for me? Retrieved from http://goaskalice.columbia.edu/social-smoking-really-all-bad-me
I also have seen stats about the greatly increased risk for mouth and throat cancers for folks who smoke while drinking alcohol. Another social smoking risk. A friend of mine lost a friend to throat cancer – she was an occasional social smoker. Her death totally took the community by surprise.
Click to access MouthAndThroatLeaflet.pdf
Great post! I know so many regular who started as social smokers and maintained social smoking for many years before become full-time smokers. I think this information is really helpful.