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Can You Get Away With Social Smoking?

The Few 'Chippers' May Be OK -- But You Probably Aren't One
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WebMD Feature

Lots of people say they're just social smokers. Odds are, they're fooling themselves.

You've seen them at parties and in bars. They usually bum smokes from more serious cigarette addicts. Their excuse: They aren't really smokers -- they're just social smokers.

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Is there really such a thing? The surprising answer is yes. Some people really do smoke just a few cigarettes a week. But if you think you're one of them, think again.

Chippers

Researchers call them "chippers." There's much to learn from this. The term is a slang word for heroin users who try to avoid addiction by infrequent use of small drug doses. It's not a strategy that often works -- for heroin, or for nicotine, says Elizabeth E. Lloyd-Richardson, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and health behavior at Brown University, Providence, R.I. She's an expert in adolescent and college-age smoking behavior.

"This is absolutely not a good thing to try," Lloyd-Richardson tells WebMD. "We certainly know the health risks associated with smoking. At this point we have not determined a safe amount of smoking. Research also suggests that particularly with adolescents, they often are kind of lulled into this sense they can smoke a little in social situations and then can quit when they go to college or get a job. And we don't actually see that happening that much. Overall, these smokers end up smoking for many, many more years than they intended to."

It's not entirely a bad thing for a person to try to smoke just a little instead of a lot, says Jack E. Henningfield, PhD, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical School.

"The good side is if a person is honest, and truly is only smoking in social situations -- and those are not daily situations -- that person is at a lower level of dependence," Henningfield tells WebMD. "If properly motivated, such people should be able to quit completely. And they should. A person wouldn't go out to their car four times a week and inhale exhaust fumes. But that is the health equivalent of smoking cigarettes four times a week."

Just like one shot of heroin, one cigarette leads to another. Well, not just like heroin. Cigarettes may be more addictive than heroin or cocaine. Two-thirds to three-fourths of current cocaine users, Henningfield notes, did not use the drug in the last month. But two-thirds of current cigarette smokers had a cigarette today.

"The other bad side of social smoking: Like a lot of people on the road to addiction, many of these people are flat-out denying they do have a problem," Henningfield says. "So people say, 'Oh, I only smoke when I drink socially' -- like in the bar -- but they find themselves going to the bar more often. And with cigarettes, soon they find themselves out on the street at 20 degrees below freezing with the other social smokers."

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