Can You Get Away With Social Smoking?
The Few 'Chippers' May Be OK -- But You Probably Aren't One
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."
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."