Can You Get Away With Social Smoking?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on January 16, 2019
3 min read

“I only smoke when I go out.”

“I just bum cigarettes, I never buy them. That doesn’t count, right?”

“I can go a long time between smokes. So I’m not addicted.”

Sound familiar? If so, you probably think of yourself as a “social smoker,” or a “light” smoker. While it sounds better when you put it that way, you’re still smoking. You might not light up as much as your friend who smokes two packs a day, but even those few cigarettes still take their toll.

“It’s no safer,” says Russell V. Luepker, MD, a cardiology professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis.

Even if you smoke only now and then, it “harms virtually every system in the body,” says Bill Blatt, director of national tobacco programs for the American Lung Association in Washington, D.C.

Not Just About Your Lungs

You already know that smoking can cause lung cancer. But many people don’t realize that smoking even one cigarette has serious, swift effects on your heart every time you take a drag.

“When you take the first puff, your metabolism has changed,” Luepker says. “Your heart beats faster. … [People don’t realize] the sudden impact one cigarette has.”

Smoking makes your platelets -- the cells in your blood that help control bleeding -- clump together. This can cause a clot that leads to a heart attack or stroke.

It also causes a reaction in your nervous system. When nicotine enters your bloodstream, it sparks a surge of adrenaline. This raises your blood pressure and heart rate and taxes your breathing.

Risky for the People Around You

Secondhand smoke -- the smoke you exhale, combined with that from the lighted end of your cigarette -- is toxic for people around you. Studies show that just being around smoke on a regular basis makes people more likely to get cancer and heart disease.

Light smoking can shorten your life. Even people who averaged less than one cigarette per day over their entire lives were 64% more likely to die early than people who’d never smoked, a study found. That risk jumped to a whopping 87% for those who smoked an average of one to 10 cigarettes a day -- which is still considered lighter smoking.

Are You More Hooked Than You Think?

One of the biggest problems with so-called social smoking is that many people don’t stay in the “occasional smoker” category for long.

“It’s super common in college,” Blatt says. “They say, ‘I’m not going to do it after college.’ But they go on consuming a lot more cigarettes. They don’t stop as easily as they thought they were going to be able to.”

Denial can be part of the problem. “They don’t want to think of themselves as smokers,” Blatt says. “Then they don’t get the help stopping, and their health suffers.”

Check on Your Smoking

You might think you’re not addicted to nicotine. But if you find yourself reaching for your reserve pack, or bumming one off a friend at certain times, you do have a dependence, Blatt says.

A good place to start is to figure out how much you smoke, and when.

Keep a tally of how many cigarettes you actually smoke in a day or week. This includes cigarettes you “borrow” from other people. Your patterns may change from week to week. “You might realize you smoke a lot more or regularly than you think,” Blatt says.

Note the situations where you smoke. Do you duck outside for a cigarette when your job is stressful? Do you find yourself smoking around the same group of people? Do you crave a cigarette when you have a cup of coffee or when you drink alcohol?

Closet smoking counts, too. Even if you hide your smoking and you’re certain no one else knows about it, you need to count those cigarettes for your own health.

There’s no shame in needing some help to kick the habit, Blatt says. That’s why stop-smoking programs exist, and everyone needs their own plan. As you get to know your triggers -- whether they’re social or stress-related -- you’ll be even more ready to quit for good.