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
"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
"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
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
"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
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."