Even Occasional Social Smoking Is Bad for Your Heart

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
July 24, 2023
Even Occasional Social Smoking Is Bad for Your Heart

Social smoking is as bad for your heart as smoking a pack a day, increasing your risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Here's what you should know.

Getting drunk, piling up on potato chips, and smoking a cigarette may all sound like okay indulgences as long as you restrict them to social occasions.   

But it turns out that social smoking is as bad for your heart as smoking much more.


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In a study at Ohio State University (OSU), researchers followed nearly 40,000 people for four years, including nonsmokers, current regular smokers, and people who said they were social smokers. It defined a social smoker as someone “who does not smoke cigarettes on a daily basis but who smokes in certain social situations on a regular basis.”

Social smoking tends to occur on college campuses when people are drinking and in nightclubs and bars. Social smokers generally think of themselves as nonsmokers and don’t think they’re risking their health.

In the Ohio State study, 10 percent of the volunteers were social smokers. They tended to be men in their 20s and 30s and were a bit more likely to be Hispanic. The researchers concluded that their population represented Americans generally — with one in 10 admitting that they smoke on social occasions and 17 percent smoking regularly.   

Social smokers were twice as likely to have high blood pressure as non-smokers and more likely to have high cholesterol — two risk factors for heart attacks and strokes. The social smoking health risks were basically the health risks of smoking, with very little difference if participants smoked more. The study did not measure outcomes for cancer, but smoking has been linked to 30 kinds of cancer.

“This is one of the most important findings in tobacco-related health in years,” wrote co-author Bernadette Melnyk, PhD, dean and professor of nursing at OSU.

When a nurse or doctor asks whether you smoke during your check-up, social smokers should answer “Yes,” since those cigarettes increase your heart risk.

The study also implies that cutting back won’t help the heart health of daily smokers as much as they’d like.

A much larger study of older people — nearly 300,000 volunteers aged 59 to 82 — found that people who smoked less than one cigarette a day were much more likely to die over the next decade than non-smokers. “These results provide further evidence that there is no risk-free level of exposure to tobacco smoke,” the authors wrote.

Specifically, smoking even a half a cigarette a day over a lifetime increased the chance of dying during the decade studied by 64 percent.

You’ve seen all the warnings in advertisements about the dangers of smoking. And the research indicates that the saying “everything in moderation” doesn’t apply to smoking.

If avoiding social smoking feels hard, you might think about why you smoke at parties. A classic paper called “The Social Role of Smoking” — which inspired arguments from R.J. Reynolds against smoking restrictions — stated that social smoking helped people fight anxiety, reinforced relationships, and helped smokers keep a sense of personal space while within a group.

If personal space is an issue for you, why not take breaks to leave the group — without lighting up?


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July 24, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN