Nondaily smoking—smoking on some days but not every day—has been considered a transient behavior associated with smoking initiation or cessation. Newer research on nondaily smoking indicates, however, that this pattern of tobacco use may represent a stable form of chronic low-level consumption1
(fewer than ten cigarettes per day). Nondaily smokers tend to be younger, better educated, minority (in particular African American and Hispanic), and wealthier than everyday smokers.1,2
Social smoking is one subset of nondaily smoking behavior, which is typically defined as smoking primarily in social contexts. Most published studies of social smokers have characterized them as affluent, Caucasian, experimenting college students who smoke socially to gain peer acceptance. The limited data in the public health literature indicate that social smokers, unlike other nondaily smokers, tend not to smoke alone3-5
and restrict their use to social situations such as parties, bars, or nightclubs.3,5,6
Social smoking also occurs in conjunction with heavy alcohol use on U.S. college campuses.7
In addition, social smokers generally categorize themselves as nonsmokers when asked by family, friends, or healthcare providers. Since they do not view their smoking as a marker of personal addiction,3-5
social smokers may fail to recognize the health risks associated with their tobacco use.3,5
While there are no public data focused solely on social smoking, the prevalence of nondaily smoking—which includes social smoking—is increasing. In the U.S., between 1996 and 2001, rates of nondaily smoking increased in 31 of the 50 states, going from 16% in 1997 to 19% in 1999, reaching 24% of current smokers in 2001.8
Probably because California has advanced tobacco-control policies that include smoke-free workplaces, homes, and public places, the prevalence of nondaily smokers increased from 26% of current smokers in 19928
to 28% in 2002 and to 30% in 2005.9
With a profile that differs from the traditional daily smoker, clinicians need to understand the unique demographics and vulnerabilities of nondaily and social smokers. Current cessation programs have been studied and validated only in the chronic daily smoker population,10
and are probably not appropriate for social smokers who do not view their tobacco use as a sign of nicotine dependence. Counseling nondaily and social smokers to quit tobacco may involve messages that stress the dangers of secondhand smoke to the nonsmoker as opposed to messages that emphasize the individual health risks, although there have not been any formal trials of this approach.11,12
At times, tobacco industry research has been decades ahead of the public health and medical communities, including on the addictive nature of nicotine, the phenomena of smoker compensation, the effects of secondhand smoke, and the emergence of health-concerned smokers. Likewise, the industry had an early understanding of social smoking starting over 30 years ago in response to increasing concerns about the dangers of secondhand smoke and the stigma associated with nicotine addiction.13
Tobacco companies recognized that social smoking, in particular, was an important pattern of consumption because it embodied the “social benefits” of smoking the industry wished to promote.
Industry research on social smoking enabled tobacco companies to understand social smokers’ demographics and psychological vulnerabilities. They found that social smokers were especially sensitive to their environment and would decrease their consumption in response to changes in their surroundings. Public health and clinical professional awareness about the characteristics and vulnerabilities of social smokers may improve current prevention and cessation strategies for this growing group.