Is It Safe to Be a Social Smoker?

Are there risks to my health if I only smoke occasionally?

Social smoking at parties
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Most of us know someone who only smokes when they go out drinking with friends, or occasionally in some other social setting. It takes them a month to go through a pack of cigarettes, and they don't seem to crave cigarettes at other times. Unlike light smokers, who smoke 10 or fewer cigarettes every day, social smokers don't light up daily.

As smokers (or ex-smokers), we think how nice it would be if we could just smoke a few now and then, but we know the reality doesn't work quite like that.

One leads to two, which leads to a pack or more day in and day out.

Here in the United States, heavy cigarette smoking is on the wane. Anti-smoking campaigns have raised awareness and with that, there are far fewer smokers today than in years past. In 1965, approximately 42 percent of American adults smoked. Today, it has dropped to about 15 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Approximately one-fourth of current American adult smokers smoke only a few cigarettes daily or just occasionally, perhaps due in part to raised awareness of the health risks associated with heavy smoking. Unfortunately, some of these people mistakenly think that what they are doing is safe for their health and that they won't become addicted to nicotine.

Are Social and Light Smokers Addicted to Nicotine?

For the overwhelming majority of people, nicotine is not a substance that is easily controlled.

 It is highly addictive and smoking becomes a compulsive activity rather than something we choose to do more often than not.

When nicotine is inhaled, it quickly travels to the brain and "docks" with receptors that it fits with. This prompts a release of a hormone called dopamine. Dopamine is called the "feel good" hormone because it causes pleasurable sensations in the brain.

The sense of well-being that washes over smokers after taking a puff or two off a cigarette is due to dopamine.

Researchers believe that dopamine plays a major role in the addiction process. Other drugs like opiates and cocaine also cause this chemical reaction in the brain. Food can be addictive as well. Those that make you crave more, like sugary treats and other simple carbohydrates, fall into this category. They cause a release of dopamine in the brain just like nicotine. It makes us feel good and we want more as the effects wear off.

A person who smokes one or two cigarettes a few times a month may be less likely to trigger a full blown addiction to nicotine. However, they are playing with fire by introducing this highly addictive substance into their bodies. What starts out as occasional consumption often becomes habitual and compulsive use in time.

In addition, smokers who associate cigarettes with particular activities, like drinking with friends at the bar for instance, may find that it is very difficult to abstain from smoking in that environment. The links we build up in our brains between smoking and emotions or even social settings can create reactions within us that mimic addiction.

Is Social Smoking Harmful to My Health?

Yes. While it's true that the smoker who consumes a few cigarettes now and then is exposed to less harm than heavy smokers, significant health risks are still present for light and occasional smokers as well.

Commercial cigarette smoke is laden with toxins. To date, researchers have identified upwards of 250 poisonous chemicals and 70 toxins that can cause or contribute to cancer. We know that there is no safe level of exposure to cigarette smoke, whether you're an active smoker or a non-smoker breathing in air filled with secondhand smoke.

Researchers have discovered that smoking between just one and four cigarettes a day is associated with death from ischemic heart disease and lung cancer, among several conditions.

Some of the other health issues for which light and social smokers are at risk include:

  • heart disease (smoking clogs arteries and increases blood pressure)
  • premature death due to heart disease
  • aortic aneurysm
  • numerous cancers: lung, esophageal, stomach, pancreatic
  • respiratory infections
  • fertility issues for both men and women
  • slowed recovery from torn cartilage and other injuries

Is It OK to Smoke Hookah Occasionally?

Hookah smoking is a form of social smoking that usually involves more than one person, although it can be an activity that is done alone.

The hookah pipe is a water pipe with a bowl for tobacco that is heated by charcoal from below. The pipe typically has several tubes that allow smokers to draw the water-cooled smoke out and into their lungs at the same time. People sit around the pipe and smoke, usually in a lounge or bar setting.

Because the smoke is water-cooled and heated rather than burned, consumers sometimes mistakenly believe that it's a safe way to smoke, but it is not.

Hookah tobacco smokers are at risk for numerous health issues, including cancers of the mouth and esophagus as well as lung, bladder, and stomach cancers.

Hookah tobacco is also addictive. An average bowl of hookah tobacco contains as much nicotine as a pack of 20 cigarettes, and experts estimate that daily hookah smokers inhale the amount of nicotine and other toxins that would be in 10 cigarettes.

What About Cigar Smoking?

Cigars are another tobacco product that are often smoked socially or occasionally. Many people who smoke cigars don't inhale, and they wrongly think they're safe because of that.

Cigars are, in fact, addictive and filled with toxins. Some of the chemicals in cigar smoke are more concentrated than they are in cigarette smoke because of how cigars are manufactured. TSNAs, a particularly nasty group of carcinogens that are unique to tobacco are present in higher levels in cigars than they are in cigarettes.

A Word From Verywell

While light or intermittent smoking of cigarettes or any other form of tobacco is less risky than heavy, regular use, it is important to remember that there is no safe level of tobacco use or exposure to tobacco smoke.

If you're smoking, use the resources below to get started with smoking cessation:

Reasons Why You Should Consider Quitting Smoking

Learn How to Quit Smoking (and Make It Stick)

As an occasional smoker, you run the risk of nicotine addiction forcing you into an ever-increasing need for more. Tobacco in any amount is bad for you, so cut your risk while you're not heavily addicted and quit now.

Sources:

British Medical Journal. Health Consequences of Smoking 1-4 Cigarettes Per Day.

Centers for Disease Control. Current Cigarette Smoking Among Adults in the United States - Fact Sheet. Updated and Reviewed, December 1, 2016.

Harvard Medical School. Light and Social Smoking Carry Cardiovascular Risks. November 2010.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. Is Nicotine Addictive? Updated July, 2012.

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