Health Check: how harmful is social smoking?

Just over 15% of Australians smoke daily and a further 1.5% smoke each week. Flickr/benessere

If you only light up when you’re drinking or out with friends, you probably don’t identify as a smoker or consider the health impact of the occasional fag. Social smokers don’t usually smoke every day but consume a low level of tobacco over a long period.

Thirty years ago, the tobacco industry studied social smokers because they wanted to promote the “social benefits” of smoking. They discovered many were motivated to achieve a certain image or wanted help relaxing and de-stressing. The companies tried to tap into this market, offering smaller pack sizes and promoting cigarettes which were claimed to be safer and non-habit forming; which of course was nonsense.

Modern social smokers are typically younger, better educated and more affluent than other smokers and often smoke to gain acceptance among their social group, rather than in response to a craving for nicotine.

It’s difficult to know the percentage of smokers who currently fall into the social smoker category because this is group isn’t explicitly counted. But among Australians over the age of 14, 15.1% smoke daily, 1.5% weekly and 1.4% less-than weekly. It’s unclear whether rates of social smoking in Australia are changing, but American figures suggest social smoking is on the rise.

Although social smokers may feel less vulnerable to harm than heavier smokers, they are still likely to suffer from smoking-related respiratory disease, heart attack, stroke and cancer. Smoking as little as one to four cigarettes each day triples your risk of heart disease and lung cancer.

With more than 60 known carcinogens in cigarette smoke, the campaign slogan that every cigarette is doing you damage is true: the more you smoke, the greater your risk. And although social smokers only smoke occasionally, they may indulge in binge smoking on those occasions.

Because nicotine is so addictive, social smokers can quickly become more regular, addicted smokers. Before long, they’re buying their own cigarettes, starting to smoke alone and wake in the morning craving a cigarette.

It is also very difficult for regular smokers to decrease consumption – to become a social smoker – because nicotine is so addictive.

The solution? Quit completely

When social smokers quit, they may avoid the withdrawal symptoms suffered by those addicted to nicotine. So the quit techniques for regular daily smokers may not apply.

Tobacco industry research has shown that social smokers tend to be more concerned than regular smokers about second-hand smoke affecting non-smokers and that these concerns could influence their smoking behaviour and decision to quit. After all, there’s nothing social about second-hand smoke.

Social smokers can quickly become more regular, addicted smokers. 4.D/ Flickr

If you are a social smoker wanting to quit, try enlisting friends to dissuade you from lighting up in social situations. If you smoke when you drink alcohol, cutting back on booze may also help.

When you quit smoking, some of the improvements commence within hours, but the reduction in the risk of serious disease will take many years.

Within the first six hours, the heart rate decreases and blood pressure drops. Most of the nicotine is cleared in the first day.

With a week, the sense of taste and smell improve and lungs begin to clear. The symptoms of a cough and wheeze progressively improve over the first year.

After ten years, the risk of lung cancer is lower than if the individual had continued smoking and by 15 years the risk of heart attack and stroke returns to those of someone who has never smoked.