1. You Can Still Be Addicted
While social smokers may not be physically addicted to nicotine, like regular smokers, experts believe they can still be psychologically addicted to the act of smoking. “Social smokers aren’t using nicotine to avoid withdrawal symptoms, but instead for the psychoactive effects; the ritual, the sensation of the smoke and the high nicotine provides,” explains psychologist Katherine Shipman, who has researched social smoking.
Professor Robert West, an expert on smoking from the University College London, describes the desire to smoke occasionally as a “situational craving” – explaining why you may only feel like a cigarette when you drink. “One way addiction works is by forming an association between situations where a person would typically smoke, which then creates the impulse to smoke when they find themselves in that situation again,” he says.
2. It Still Damages Your Lungs
Just one cigarette can temporarily reduce your lung capacity and impact your ability to breathe. Not only does this mean your next workout will most likely be negatively affected (due to an increased chance of breathlessness), it will also leave you more susceptible to lung infections. "Even light smokers have an increased risk of developing lung infections, and when they have infections the symptoms will often last longer than non-smokers. This because your lungs will get worse at clearing debris," says Dr Richard Russell, Consultant Respiratory Physician and medical advisor to the British Lung Foundation.
Dr Russell adds that whether you smoke socially or not is not the point. “It’s the toxic chemicals you are inhaling,” he explains. “Even occasional smoking puts your health at risk – the only safe level of smoking is nothing at all."
3. It Could Still Cause Cancer
If you only light up on occasion, you might think you’re exempt from the same fears a full-time smoker may have about developing cancer in the future (smoking is linked to 16 different types of cancer), but according to Dr Russell, this isn’t the case.
"It has been recently discovered that there are significant effects on the DNA in many cells throughout the body from even a low level of smoking," he says. "Researchers at the Wellcome Trust’s Sanger Institute analysed the DNA of more than 5,000 cancers to see how tobacco smoke mutates our DNA. They found that just smoking four to five packs of cigarettes in a lifetime causes several permanent mutations in many cells throughout the body and thus increases the risk of cancer."
4. It Can Still Shorten Your Life
Dr Russell reveals that researchers from the University of Bristol estimated that over a lifetime each cigarette could take 11 minutes off your life: "A long-term study found that people who smoked between one to four cigarettes a day have significantly higher risk of dying from all causes than non-smoker.”
Another study found that even people who averaged less than one cigarette per day over their entire lives were 64% more likely to die early than people who’d never smoked. That risk jumped to a whopping 87% for those who smoked an average of one to ten cigarettes a day.
5. It Still Affects The Way You Look
We all know smoking can speed up the ageing process, causing potentially irreversible damage to your skin, hair, and teeth – and social smoking is no exception. This is because smoking causes the body to work harder to get oxygen to the muscles and organs – like the skin – slows down circulation and even damages collagen and elastin production (the fibres that give your skin its strength and elasticity).
"Smoking reduces the amount of oxygen that gets to your skin. This means that if you smoke, your skin ages more quickly and looks grey and dull," Dr Russell notes. "Smoking prematurely ages your skin by between ten and 20 years, and makes it three times more likely you'll get facial wrinkling, particularly around the eyes and mouth."
How To Keep Your Social Smoking In Check:
Start a tally: Take note of how many cigarettes you actually smoke in a day or week (this includes cigarettes you ‘borrow’ from other people). You might find you smoke a lot more than you think.
Note the situations where you smoke: Do you head out for a cigarette when work gets stressful? Do you find yourself smoking around the same group of people? Do you crave a cigarette when you have a cup of coffee or when you drink alcohol? Being aware of your triggers can help you make better choices.
Remember closet smoking counts: Even if you hide your smoking and you’re certain no one else knows about it, you need to count those cigarettes for your own health.
For more information about how to stop social smoking, visit the British Lung Foundation website BLF.org.uk