“I’m not really a smoker. I only smoke a few cigarettes a day.”
“I only smoke when I go out on the weekend.”
“I can go a long time between smokes. So, I’m not addicted.”
Maybe you’ve said something like this when asked about your smoking “habit.”
In fact, you probably don’t think of it as a habit. You’re in control, and you decide when and how much you smoke, right? And anyway, “social smoking” doesn’t put you at high risk for cancer, right?
Scientific evidence tells us that “social smoking,” as this kind of occasional lighting up has become known, is just as dangerous to your health as a full-blown, daily habit.
What’s more, it’s not just lung cancer you need to worry about. Enjoying that occasional cigarette sets you up for premature death from other conditions as well, and reduces your quality of life in measurable ways.
If you’re an “occasional” smoker, here’s what you need to know.
Is smoking EVER risk-free?
Let’s start by getting this question out of the way. The answer is a resounding no.
Many studies confirm that no level of cigarette smoking is safe.
For example, researchers from the American Cancer Society followed 290,215 adults ages 59 to 82 for an average of 6.6 years, tracking their smoking habits during that time.
People who consistently smoked an average of less than 1 cigarette per day had a 64% higher risk of dying earlier than people who had never smoked.
Those who smoked 1 to 10 cigarettes a day had an 87 percent higher risk of dying earlier than people who never smoked.
And a very recent Columbia University study has confirmed these findings.
Dr. Pallavi Balte and Dr. Elizabeth Oelsner at Columbia University Irving Medical Center examined the relative risk of death from lung cancer and other respiratory diseases among social smokers, non-smokers and heavy smokers.
The study followed 18,730 people for an average of 17 years. The researchers calculated that social smokers were 2.5 times as likely to die of respiratory disease and 8.6 times as likely to die of lung cancer, compared to non-smokers.
Social smokers had around half the rate of death from respiratory disease as heavy smokers, but their rate of lung cancer death was two-thirds that of heavy smokers.
So, those “occasional” smokers only cut their chances of dying from lung cancer by a third, compared to those who smoke a pack or more a day.
Dr. Balte noted, “You might think that if you only smoke a few cigarettes a day you are avoiding most of the risk. But our findings suggest that social smoking is disproportionately harmful.”
And it’s not just cancer…
As if these statistics were not scary enough, here is a list of other health hazards associated with “occasional” smoking:
- Heart disease due to high blood pressure and cholesterol-clogged arteries
- Weakened aorta (an aortic aneurysm)
- Premature death from cardiovascular disease
- Lung, esophageal, stomach and pancreatic cancer
- Respiratory tract infections
- Delayed conception in women and poorer sperm function in men
- Slower recovery from torn cartilage and other injuries
- Increased frailty in older men and women
- Poorer health-related quality of life
And, exposure to cigarette smoke drastically increases the level of ACE-2 proteins in the lungs, making smokers far more likely to develop serious COVID-19 infections.
Kicking the habit
Believe it or not, research has shown that the healthiest way to quit may be to go cold turkey. If this sounds impossible, try partnering up with someone else and doing it together.
Fortunately, there is some indication that dumping the social smoking habit is somewhat easier than giving up a full-blown habit. The biggest deterrent is cutting down on what triggers your social smokes. That may mean finding different ways to socialize or coming up with a plan ahead of time when you know you will be with people or in environments where the urge to smoke socially is strongest for you.
One good suggestion is to find new hangouts where smoking is not allowed, so you’ve got one more obstacle to make it harder to sneak that one cigarette.
Light and social smoking carry cardiovascular risks — Harvard Medical School
9 things you need to know about social smoking — Queensland Government / Queensland Health