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Many people have a favorite activity to do with friends. But one particular social activity has caught the attention of researchers: social smoking.

In a recent Student Health 101 survey, more than 50 percent of respondents who smoke said they considered themselves “social smokers,” saying they use tobacco mainly when spending time with other people.

Reasons for Smoking

There are lots of reasons people use tobacco. Taking a cigarette break can be a way to relax, to connect with people in a quieter atmosphere, or be associated with certain environments or experiences.

A 2010 study in Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that students often connect drinking with smoking, and that while tobacco use might be judged negatively in other situations, it may be seen as acceptable at parties and when consuming alcohol.

Further, the researchers identified the following reasons for social smoking:

  • Facilitation of social interactions
  • Structuring time and space at parties
  • “Feeling more calm” when drinking

“I usually smoke in the evenings when I’m just talking with friends,” says James F.*, a junior at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

Social smokers also tend to smoke outside restaurants and bars, or during breaks with co-workers. Harriet T.*, a recent graduate of Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, says, “It’s usually good conversation time.”

Occasional vs. Steady

Social smokers fall into the larger category of “occasional smokers.” In 2004, researchers at the Tobacco Research and Treatment Center and Division of General Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, set out to define social smoking among college students. Among a random sample of nearly 11,000 survey participants, they found that these smokers:

  • Used smaller amounts of tobacco, and smoked less frequently, than “regular” users
  • Had less nicotine dependence
  • Had less interest in stopping their tobacco use, and fewer recent quit attempts

Interestingly, in a 2009 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, more than 50 percent of students who reported smoking a cigarette in the last 30 days responded “no” to the question “Do you consider yourself a smoker?” This confirms earlier results published in 2007 inNicotine and Tobacco Research.

The 2007 research found that typically, social smokers say the following about their habits:

  • They use tobacco only occasionally, mainly to relax.
  • They’re not “really” smokers.
  • They prefer their close friends and romantic partners to be nonsmokers.
  • They don’t smoke for stress relief.
  • They’re not dependent on nicotine, so it will be easy to stop when they want to.
  • They’ll quit once they leave their current environment-like school.

Long-Term Patterns

For most smokers, tobacco use serves a function, and this trumps any concerns about potential health risks or other consequences. And among social smokers, many believe they won’t experience the negative effects of smoking, mostly because they’ll quit before long.

There is conflicting evidence as to whether this is true. A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that students who smoked occasionally, but didn’t identify as smokers, were more likely to be interested in ceasing their tobacco use than steady smokers. But in a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, college students who said they weren’t smokers (despite actually smoking) were less likely to quit.

Use Social Triggers to Quit

When someone is trying to quit, social situations associated with smoking can be a difficult challenge. Even if that person doesn’t feel dependent on it, nicotine is a powerful drug, and the brain is going to crave a hit.

The good news is that social ties are actually a strong determinant of success with quitting. A 2008 study in the New England Journal of Medicinefound, “Smoking behavior spreads through close and distant social ties, [and] groups of interconnected people stop smoking in concert.” The researchers found that if one person stops smoking, the chances of his or her friends smoking decreased by almost 40 percent.

If you or someone you know is trying to quit, here are some strategies for sticking with that plan:

Be aware. Be conscious of smoking triggers. If smoking is connected with drinking for you, avoid situations with alcohol, suggests Dr. Janet Thomas, a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Distract yourself. Keep gum or mints handy and substitute them for cigarettes. One respondent to the recent Student Health 101 survey suggested keeping one’s hands occupied.

Involve friends. Studies indicate that many smokers’ friends also smoke. “There are times when people around me start smoking,” says Bruce W.*, a senior at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. “I don’t smoke with them but still talk with them while they’re smoking.”

If tempting situations are hard to avoid, explain to friends your intentions to quit. If they’re aware, they’ll be less likely to offer cigarettes or smoke themselves. It can be easier to quit as a group.

Focus on motivations to quit. Having reasons-such as appearance improvement, one’s own health, or the health of friends and family-can serve as motivation to resist even the occasional cigarette.

Dr. Anna Song, a professor at the University of California, Merced, emphasizes that more research is needed to find ways to help social smokers quit. “Once we get a better grasp of how social smokers think and behave, we’ll be better able to create interventions that will be efficient and effective.”

*Name changed for privacy.

Take Action:

  • Be aware of what triggers you to smoke.
  • Be honest with yourself about how often you smoke and its potential effects.
  • Avoid situations where you may be tempted.
  • Motivate yourself to quit with long-term goals.
  • Seek support from friends, family, and professionals to quit successfully.

More data about quitting

In 2007, a study published in Tobacco Control found that among college-aged, female, occasional smokers-over the course of seven years-about:
  • 25% reported continued occasional smoking
  • 25% moved to smoking daily
  • 50% stopped smoking and remained non-smokers

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Stacy Hill is a health educator and writer in Boston. She has her master’s in social work from Hunter College at the City University of New York.