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Mental Health

The Truth About Social Smoking: How Bad For You Is It?

It’s a Saturday night, and you’re at a party with friends.  Someone offers you a cigarette with your beer.  You don’t smoke that often, so you accept — harmless, right?  Going out for a smoke every now and then might not seem like a big deal, but it can easily become something more serious. You’re sure you’ve got your habits under control, but pretty soon, you’re sneaking a cigarette during late-night library visits and eventually going through a pack per day. 

Defining Social Smoking
The National Center for Biotechnology Information defines social smoking as “a distinct pattern of tobacco use that is common among college students and may represent a stage in the uptake of smoking.”  Dr. Joseph DiFranza of the University of Massachusetts Medical School further describes social smokers as those who have fewer than five cigarettes a day, don’t feel the need to smoke every day, and think they can control their urge to smoke. It’s a phenomenon that, according to Dr. Roy Stefanik, is prevalent on college campuses.

“When I started working in college counseling ten years ago, I was surprised at the number of students I saw who only smoked very periodically and did not daily.  Often they could go for long stretches without a cigarette, have several, and then not pick it up again for several days or weeks.”

A desire to fit in can certainly be a prime catalyst for smoking behaviors to develop.  It might seem like an outdated notion, but there is still a sense that smoking can make you look “cool” and sociable, as Sarah, a sophomore at Belmont University, reveals: “One of my close friends will only smoke when he’s at social outings like concerts, outdoor festivals, etc. It’s actually a way of starting conversation.”

The Danger of Addiction

Is it possible to stop at just a few smokes? Bates College student Annie, who considers herself a social smoker, says that it’s possible not to become addicted. “It’s really all about self-control and personal choices,” she asserts. “Smoking is something that can evolve very quickly into an addiction, but if proper precautions are taken then I think you can be a social smoker.”  

DiFranza, however, claims that “social smokers rarely exist” due to the highly addictive nature of cigarettes, and Boston University sophomore Kelsey agrees, saying the behavior is all too common on campus.
“Too many people think it’s fine to just smoke once when they’re drunk…but a lot of those people just then keep doing it when they’re drunk and out at parties and what not and then before they know it they’re just smoking regularly,” she says. 

Sammy*, a senior at the University of Utah, says that she began smoking on the weekends at parties where her friends would smoke. “You start smoking once a month, and then that turns into once a week, and then a few times a week, and before you know it, you’re smoking a pack a day,” she says. Though she has made several attempts to quit, Sammy is still addicted and has been smoking for almost three years.

The Risks of Social Smoking

There are risks involved whenever you smoke a cigarette, no matter how many or how few or how often; whether it’s one cigarette or a whole pack, you are still inhaling toxic chemicals.  Any degree of smoking hinders artery function, which can ultimately lead to heart disease.  One or two cigarettes a weekend might not seem like a lot, but the negative health effects still build up, also putting social smokers at risk for certain cancers, respiratory diseases and early death. 

Alice Gallagher of Student Health Services at the University of Pennsylvania points out that risks of health problems do increase with heavier smoking, so periodic cigarettes are by nature less harmful, but nicotine’s addictive qualities make it difficult to stop at just a few.  “Although during good times a person may be able to limit the amount they smoke, during times of stress smokers usually smoke more. If smoking becomes a primary coping mechanism for handling stress, then social smoking can lead to more habitual smoking. I believe it’s safer to not indulge due to the addictive nature of nicotine,” she advises.  Studies show that teens are especially sensitive to nicotine’s effects on the brain; even smoking one cigarette can inhibit your ability to resist cravings for the drug.  The more often you give in to these urges, the more frequent they become, eventually leading to addiction and even more severe health problems.

‘Social smoking’ is a habit we’ve probably all witnessed, but when we’re out on the weekends, we don’t always think about how risky the behavior can be. The slippery slope of nicotine addiction can all too easily become steeper when experienced in a college environment.  Have you or your friends ever taken part in ‘social smoking’?  Do you think there is such a thing as social smoking or is it just a gateway to addiction?

*Name has been changed

Collegiettes™ from around the country
Dr. Joseph DiFranza, University of Massachusetts Medical School
Dr. Roy Stefanik, Psychiatrist
Alice Gallagher, Student Health Services at the University of Pennsylvania

Cameron is a senior at Bucknell University pursuing degrees in English and Theatre. Born and raised in suburban Philadelphia, she is a member of Delta Gamma sorority and recently spent a semester abroad in London (tea and scones galore!). Her favorite things include (but are not limited to) anything with the word "coffee" in it, her two shih tzus, peppermint gum, reality tv, and spending time with family and friends. She also enjoys experimenting in the kitchen, dancing, staying active, and singing. Her claim to fame? She was a street shoutout on the show "Cash Cab".
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