It’s no big secret that smoking is bad for your health. Various campaigns, writings and media have made it abundantly clear that there are no health benefits to lighting up a roll of tobacco, though there are many consequences.
However, most conversations about smoking paint it in black and white, when in reality, smoking habits are much more nuanced, implying diversity among the health consequences. For example, smoking a single cigarette on a Friday evening must carry a different set of consequences than smoking two packs a day. I’m definitely not arguing for a repeal of anti-smoking campaigns, but I do think it’s critical to "know the beast" of smoking in its various forms when considering health risks.
Social smokers are a small subset of people (up to about 30 percent) who only smoke in specific settings (parties, meetings, etc.), under specific circumstances and typically with other people. Though the definition is rather vague, social smoking can be defined as an intermittent, nonaddicted (i.e., smoking to stave off cravings) activity. Social smokers are what casual drinkers are when compared to alcoholics.
Popular in the college scene, it seems as though these smokers are addicted to smoking itself rather than the active addictive ingredient in cigarettes, nicotine. Social smokers tend to be addicted to the sensation of the smoke and the nicotine high.
However, though these smokers are not "addicted" in the pack-a-day sense of the term, they are at greater risk for heart disease and cancer. This low level of smoking is not as dangerous as heavy cigarette use, but it is important to remember that any smoking is extremely toxic to the body. Because many social smokers do not view themselves as smokers at all, they are the least likely to quit. Also, social smoking can be dangerous because, in many individuals, it leads to more consistent smoking and a dependence on nicotine. In a study that followed social smoking college students for four years, one-fifth of them became daily smokers.
Smoking when you’re anxious about something is a physiological paradox, even though it may make you feel more relaxed. Smokers experience elevated physical signs of stress but report feeling less stress than before smoking. Researchers are still studying this phenomenon, but a likely explanation is that nicotine has the ability to stimulate the pleasure centers in our brain, while stressing other systems.
All that is to say that there are much more efficient and effective ways to reduce your stress levels than taking a drag. Yoga and even breathing exercises won’t give you a nicotine buzz, but if you know that you are prone to anxiety, be proactive about seeking healthy, sustainable ways to manage your restless mind.
Nicotine strongly curbs your appetite, leading many to pick up smoking as a way to lose weight. In fact, one-half of female smokers and one-fourth of men who smoke are worried about their weight.
Although the average post-quitting weight gain is in the 5-10 pound range, most people who quit smoking return to their average weight. All that is to say that bikini season is not worth doing permanent damage to your lungs and putting yourself at risk for several diseases and health complications.
This kind of nicotine-addicted smoking is the kind that most health questionnaires assume when someone answers yes to the smoking question. This is the kind of smoking commonly disparaged in anti-smoking campaigns, and rightfully so—it is the most deadly. Someone who smokes regularly is addicted to nicotine and smokes in order to satisfy a physiological craving. An individual addicted to smoking has an extremely high risk of contracting cancer or heart disease.
There are other negative aspects of habitual smoking. Not only does it cost those who are addicted several thousands of dollars a year, but some studies have shown that each cigarette you smoke reduces your lifespan by 11 minutes.
There are many paths out of addiction to smoking, the first of which is consulting a physician about the options. If you are a regular smoker, I encourage you to talk to a health care professional as soon as possible. The dangerous risks of habitual smoking are far too high to place on yourself, your family and your friends.
Overall, any kind of smoking can become problematic for your health, whether you’re only a social smoker or you’re Don Draper. No cigarette is without risk, and all smoking increases your risk of deadly diseases. However, it is important to be informed and understand that the label of "smoker" may be a blanket term for a variety of behaviors, which hold different effects and consequences.
Rashad J. Gober is a gym junkie, avid runner and freelance writer whose interests include pop culture and healthy living. But he's not a doctor, so his suggestions are no substitute for medical advice. Feel free to contact him via Twitter or email with any comments or suggestions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.