Social Smokers Aren't Hooked on Nicotine, Just Smoking

Social smokers usually don’t light up alone, and they often limit cigarettes to weekends or after-hours.

Theres a species of smoker among us that is common yet poorly understood. Their habitat consists of parties, barbecues, and the sidewalks outside bars and restaurants. They prefer to scrounge for their cigarettes, and if they do buy a pack, theyre apt to nurse it for a week or more. You may hear them say, "Im not a smoker," or "Only on weekends."

These are "social smokers"—and there are more of them than you might think.

Smoking is often characterized as an all-or-nothing activity—on doctors office questionnaires its usually a yes-or-no question, for instance—but by some estimates, anywhere from one-fifth to one-third of adults who smoke dont light up every day. While some of these so-called nondaily smokers smoke regularly but sparingly, up to 30% likely fall into the social-smoker category.

Hard numbers are difficult to come by, in part because the definition of a social smoker is so vague. A 2007 study of social smoking among college students—one of very few that have been published on the subject—found the term was used "loosely and inconsistently," even among researchers. But most people know a social smoker when they see one. They smoke occasionally, almost always in groups, and more often than not while drinking alcohol. By definition, they do not consider themselves addicted to nicotine. Many started smoking casually in high school or college but never graduated to a daily habit.

"If Im out drinking, or hanging out with people who are smoking, then I usually get the urge to smoke," says Vickie, 45, from New York City. "But I might smoke Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and then not smoke for a week."

Vickies friend Katherine, 46, has smoked intermittently since her college days, but she limits it to specific times and places. "I dont think Ive ever had a cigarette before 7 p.m.," she says. "I have smoked alone, but very, very rarely, and I dont think Ive bought a pack in 20 years. I know that I could put it down at any time." Though she sometimes goes for months without smoking, she may smoke a whole pack in a weekend if some old friends are in town or if shes on vacation. "Smoking is a small indulgence that I sometimes do," says Katherine, "sort of like eating too much ice cream."

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Ray Hainer
Last Updated: October 16, 2008

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