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Can You Get Away With Social Smoking?

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

Do Social Smokers Exist?

John Bachman, PhD, assistant vice president for special projects at United Behavioral Health, San Francisco, helps people with serious nicotine addictions.

"The social smoker, I would say that type of person exists," Bachman tells WebMD. "The social smoker, who smokes once or twice a week or at a party, my guess is this is not a person who is smoking cigarette tobacco in order to self-administer nicotine. The people addicted to nicotine will smoke cigarettes, pipes, chew tobacco, put on skin patches, whatever they have to do to get the drug they crave. So I am distinguishing between the social smoker who may get high on the acute effect of carbon dioxide and nicotine, as contrasted with the nicotine-addicted smoker."

This extremely low level of smoking may not be as dangerous as heavier cigarette use.

"I think if a person is healthy, in the broad sense of the word, and smokes one or two cigarettes a week, something else will probably kill that person before cigarette smoking will," Bachman says.

That level of smoking appears to be very rare indeed. Henningfield notes that depending on state of residence, only 5%-15% of smokers have five or fewer cigarettes a day. And half of daily smokers, he says, die prematurely.

"The only thing that is relevant is this: If you smoke at all you are at increased risk of cancer and heart disease. Any smoking does that," he says. "So if people say, 'I only smoke occasionally,' or 'I never smoke more than 10 a day,' they have increased risk because this substance is so toxic."

Current Smokers Usually Can't Just Scale Down

Social smoking is likely less harmful than heavy smoking. But if you're already a smoker, it's very unlikely you can cut back to being a social smoker.

"What I counsel my patients is that, particularly with individuals who have smoked more regularly, it is very difficult to practice that harm reduction where you get down to smoking one or two cigarettes a day," Lloyd-Richardson says. "For someone who has been a regular smoker, it is hard to do that because the number of cigarettes smoked tends to creep up over time."

It's especially true for younger smokers. They feel they can smoke without getting addicted. In other words, they try to become social smokers.

"It is so tricky. College students really want to become social smokers, especially those who are more regular smokers and know they should quit, but still want to go out with friends and smoke and drink and not smoke during the week," Lloyd-Richardson says. "I have never seen any students be successful at trying to do that. It is really an all -or-none kind of thing when you're trying to quit. And that is really harder with younger people who feel invulnerable and think they can do anything and get away with it."

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Reviewed on November 18, 2003

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