'Social Smoker' Beware

July 24, 2000 -- While we often hear of research touting the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, we don't hear much about any potential benefits or risks of moderate cigarette smoking.


Yet we all know a few "social smokers" -- the type who can light up with a glass of Cabernet during happy hour or smoke a cigarette while stressing about a difficult work assignment, yet never become nicotine-dependent cigarette junkies.


But are these social smokers simply playing with fire? The answer is a resounding yes, experts tell WebMD.


"The dangers of 'social smoking' are several-fold," says Gilbert Ross, MD, medical director of the American Council on Science and Health in New York. "We don't know how many cigarettes are required to cause the [variety of] illnesses associated with cigarette smoking, [and] we don't know if there is a such thing as a 'safe' number of cigarettes to smoke."


And, Ross tells WebMD, secondhand smoke is associated with known health effects, such as bronchitis and asthma attacks, and there is some evidence that repeated exposure to secondhand smoke may increase risk for chronic diseases including heart disease and lung cancer.


A recent study published in TheNew England Journal of Medicine found that the number one risk factor for heart disease was smoking. Women who smoked 15 or more cigarettes a day had a five times greater risk of developing heart disease than nonsmokers. And women who smoked one to 14 cigarettes a day had three times the risk of developing heart disease compared to women who did not smoke. Overall, 41% of the heart problems reported in this study were directly linked to cigarette smoking, the study authors report.


The bottom line is that "there is no known safe level of consumption of cigarettes," says Ron Todd, director of tobacco control of the American Cancer Society in Atlanta. "Smoking a couple of cigarettes a day or on the weekend will still jeopardize your health."


It's also very hard to maintain a social smoking habit without gradually increasing consumption, he tells WebMD. "You are playing with fire if you say 'I can be a person who just smokes a cigarette here or there' because you can end up being a regular smoker," he adds.


Most hard-core smokers started out as social smokers, Todd says.


"Nicotine is very addictive," he says. "My advice is if you smoke at all -- stop; it has no benefits and certainly is still hazardous to your health, even if you just smoke a few."


Each day, nearly 4,800 adolescents aged 11 to 17 smoke their first cigarette, and of these, nearly 2,000 will become regular smokers. Each year, about 430,700 people die from causes directly related to smoking.


Professional athletes and even weekend warriors can damage their performance by social smoking, says Lewis G. Maharam, MD, sports medicine specialist in New York City and the president of New York chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine.


"I discourage social smoking, " he says. "There is no such thing."


According to Maharam, "every cigarette you put in your mouth and inhale sets you up for the risks of lung disease. And athletes, above all, need good lung performance to get enough oxygen to perform at their peak," he says. "Any decrease in lung performance will decrease overall performance."


The purer your lung, the better your performance, Maharam says.


"It's cumulative, so each cigarette you take builds on the one before. Over time, your performance will be affected," he tells WebMD.