Is It Safe to Be a Social Smoker?

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If you smoke socially, you may only smoke one cigarette every now and then, especially when you are out with friends. It's a common misconception that this type of social smoking is safe, but the truth is that smoking any number of cigarettes still puts you at risk of developing the health conditions associated with smoking, including heart disease, lung cancer, and even symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Social smoking is often called light or intermittent smoking. It's estimated that about one-fourth of people who smoke cigarettes in the United States smoke socially.

Health Risks

Cigarettes contain over 7,000 chemicals. When you inhale the smoke from even one cigarette, these toxins enter your bloodstream and can start to damage your heart and blood vessels, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Experts find that genetics also play a role in how smoking affects your health, which may help to explain why some people develop certain illnesses from smoking while others do not.

Still, there is no safe level of exposure to cigarette smoke. Every cigarette you smoke increases your risk of addiction and negative health effects such as:

  • Cataracts
  • Clogged arteries
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Lung, esophageal, stomach, pancreatic, oral, and skin cancers
  • Premature death
  • Reduced quality of life
  • Reproductive problems
  • Respiratory tract infections
  • Slow recovery from injuries
  • Weak aorta

One study found that a group of people whose smoking was "lifelong" and "non-daily" (smoking anywhere between 11 and 60 cigarettes per month) had, on average, a 72% increased mortality rate when compared to those who never smoked.

When you smoke, you also expose those around you to toxic secondhand smoke and thirdhand smoke. Secondhand smoke has been linked to heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer, among other illnesses.

Thirdhand smoke is made up of residual nicotine. Traces of it can be found on surfaces like doorknobs, carpets, and clothes after someone smokes nearby. Research has linked thirdhand smoke to more smoking-related cancer cases and has suggested it can even damage DNA.

Mental Health Effects

While a person might reach for the occasional cigarette because they believe it relieves stress, smoking can actually increase tension and anxiety.

People who smoke are more likely to have depression than those who don't smoke.

More research is needed to understand the link between smoking and depression. However, people who are depressed may be more likely to smoke and/or smoking itself may contribute to a person developing depression.

If you have an existing mental health condition, smoking may worsen its symptoms. For instance, people with schizophrenia who smoke experience more psychiatric symptoms and more hospitalizations compared with those with schizophrenia who don't smoke.

Smoking may also interfere with medications like antidepressants and antipsychotics, making them less effective.

Nicotine Addiction

Nicotine is highly addictive. Those who use any amount often find it difficult to control their use.

Inhaling cigarette smoke increases levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in your brain. Dopamine is known as the "feel-good" hormone because it causes pleasurable sensations in the brain. You may feel irritated and uncomfortable after the effects of nicotine wear off.

Having a tolerance to nicotine means you require larger amounts over time to feel the same effects, and a dependence means you experience withdrawal symptoms when discontinuing use. Even if you only smoke occasionally, you can develop a dependence on cigarettes.

Consistent use of nicotine can lead to addiction, which is a disorder in which you repeatedly use a substance despite negative consequences.

One common sign of nicotine addiction is nicotine withdrawal. Withdrawal is a series of physical and mental symptoms you experience when you stop using nicotine. The symptoms may start within a few hours of quitting and last days or even weeks.

American Cancer Society

People who have used tobacco regularly for a few weeks or longer will have withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop or greatly reduce the amount they use.

— American Cancer Society

Symptoms of nicotine withdrawal include:

Those who smoke socially tend to be less dependent on nicotine than those who smoke regularly; however, research suggests that about 50% of people who smoke socially will continue to smoke (either regularly or intermittently) for years, despite intentions to quit.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Why Do People Socially Smoke?

Research shows that people are more likely to smoke if the people around them, like friends and family, smoke. Someone might pick up a cigarette because they think it looks "cool" and are encouraged by their friends.

Studies show that people with other substance use disorders and mental health conditions may be more likely to smoke, self-medicating with tobacco to reduce their symptoms—when in reality, smoking has been shown to worsen your mental health over time.

Those who socially smoke might have difficulty being around other people without smoking. For instance, they might be triggered by going to a bar, a party, or a celebration where they'll feel an urge to smoke.

Being around other people who are smoking or even seeing someone smoke a cigarette can trigger a craving as well. Other rituals like drinking alcohol, drinking coffee, or driving can also trigger someone to reach for a cigarette.

Types of Social Smoking

In addition to cigarettes, e-cigarettes, cigars, and hookah are all popular forms of social smoking. Again, each type has potential health risks.

  • E-Cigarettes and vaping devices: Like traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes contain carcinogens and toxic particles. One study found that short-term use of e-cigarettes was linked to negative health effects, even when they didn't contain nicotine.
  • Cigars: Cigar smoking puts you at risk of many of the same health risks as cigarette smoking. Cigars contain many of the same toxins as cigarettes.
  • Hookah: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "In a typical 1-hour hookah smoking session, users may inhale 100–200 times the amount of smoke they would inhale from a single cigarette." The smoke inhaled from a hookah is at least as toxic as cigarette smoke.

How to Quit Social Smoking

It's common for people who socially smoke not to regard their smoking as a problem or dependence, so it can be even more difficult for them to get help.

However, there are resources available that can help you quit social smoking. Consult with your doctor to find the best ways for you.

Steer Clear of Smoking

Try to avoid situations where people will be smoking when you're trying to quit. If your friends and family smoke, let them know that you're quitting. You might ask them to try not to smoke around you.

Their support can really help your progress. If necessary, you may need to take time away from people who continue to smoke around you. Try making friends with people who don't smoke and spending time in places where you know there won't be anyone smoking, like a movie theater, museum, or library.

Take Care of Your Mental Health

Studies show that meditation can improve self-control and help people quit smoking. Exercises like visualization may also help you quit smoking. Imagine how you'll feel when you're able to go to a party and socialize without feeling the urge to smoke. You might picture your health improving to motivate you.

Recent studies show that quitting smoking is beneficial to mental health. Quitting smoking has been associated with reduced anxiety, depression, and improvements in mood.

Get Support

Make a plan to quit smoking by setting a cut-off date. If you make a mistake and smoke at a party or take a drag of a friend's cigarette, try not to get discouraged. Consider joining a support group of other people who are also trying to quit.

There are plenty of quit-smoking apps, online groups, and in-person meetings you can find in your area. Having people on your side who are rooting for you can make all the difference.

Talk to Your Doctor

Remember to be transparent with your doctor about your smoking habits. There are medications to help people quit smoking, as well as nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) options that might help.

Nicotine replacement therapy administers small doses of nicotine (without the toxins that are in cigarettes) via a small patch you wear. It also comes in lozenges, mouth sprays, and gum. Of course, your doctor may or may not recommend these depending on how often you smoke.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may also help you address your urges to smoke. A therapist can work with you to address underlying emotions and situations that drive you to smoke. From there, you can learn healthy coping mechanisms instead of reaching for a cigarette.

A Word From Verywell

The bottom line is that there is no safe level of smoking. Even if you don't smoke very often, there are potential health consequences and the risk for nicotine addiction. There are plenty of resources to quit smoking. Start by talking to your doctor about your options to help you quit social smoking for good.

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