Ask An Adult: Is Social Smoking Really That Bad For You?

Does only binge-smoking at weekends make a difference? What about the 'I'll quit when I'm 30' thing? We asked an expert, and the answers might surprise you...


by Erica Buist |
Published on

Have you noticed that when asked the question 'Do you smoke?' no one ever just says ‘yes’ any more? Instead, you rattle off all the times you will smoke and when you won’t – only socially, only at night, only when stressed, only when there’s a full moon. What’s the difference between a smoker and a nabs-cigarettes-off-mates-outside-the-pub smoker when it comes to lung cancer and heart disease? We spoke to an expert and, surprisingly, found that it’s not all doom and cancerous gloom (oh, and that 'I'll stop before I'm 30' thing is a lot less medically stupid than it sounds)


You have a pack of 10 in your room and reach for a cigarette once a month when you've had an argument with your boyfriend, or maybe once a fortnight when your boss is being a douche, maybe weekly if you throw in PMS.

What does this mean?

You’re a smoker. In fact, my expert Professor John Britton, respiratory consultant and chair of the Royal College of Physicians, suggests that smoking to alleviate stress is actually a response to withdrawal symptoms. (I’ll warn you now, Professor John Britton is really down on smoking. He’s got nothing positive to say about it at all and insists the rumours are true: it really is bad for you). He says: 'If you’re a regular smoker and you get stressed, the sensation of stress is very similar to the sensation of nicotine withdrawal.' Basically chicas, cigarettes don’t help stress, they help withdrawal. Just as fry-ups don’t help hangovers, they help hunger. Why must these infernal stimuli masquerade as one another?!

READ MORE: The First TV E-Cigarette Adverts Are Here, And They're Causing Controversy - Obviously


You only smoke five a week, so you’re pretty close to being a non-smoker.

What does this mean?

I hate to say this, but you are actually a smoker. In fact, you’re a smoker with a risk of cardiovascular disease that’s unfairly similar to people who smoke a lot more. 'The difference in risk for someone who smokes 20 a day is higher than someone who smokes five a day but not proportionately higher,” says Prof Britton, “because very low levels of exposure cause quite a lot of harm.' NB: we are not telling you to man up and smoke the whole pack, because it is slightly better, but only in terms of some things. Basically, smoking fewer cigarettes is about the same risk for the things you can heal from (eg heart disease, stroke etc), but not for the things that cause permanent damage like lung cancer. 'Smoking five a week rather than 140 a week, you’re working on about 3 per cent of the risk for some things, but in terms of cardiovascular disease, smoking five a week is pretty much the same as smoking five a day' says Prof Britton. Somewhat terrifyingly.


You smoke a pack when drunk, every time you're drunk.

What does this mean?

Healthwise, binge smoking on a night out can’t be as bad as smoking regularly, can it? Well, yes and no. There are two types of damage smoking does. There’s the permanent damage, such as increasing your risk of lung cancer and obstructive pulmonary disease (both lung problems, both horrible). When it comes to these two common smoking-related diseases, which we're all at risk of when we age, Prof Britton says that 'every cigarette you smoke does a certain amount of damage, and that damage never goes away, you carry it with you, but the day you stop smoking your risk continues to increase at the same rate as a non smoker's.'

Then there’s the damage you can heal from during the week when you’re not smoking, or when you quit. When it comes to heart disease and stroke, 'if you stop smoking those very high risks with low levels of exposure also drop away very quickly, much of it within a few days and much of it within a year. Having cigarette smoke or products in your bloodstream makes the blood very sticky and so much more likely to clot, which is what triggers heart attacks and strokes – it takes about 10 days for that to wear off.'


You only smoke at night.

What does this mean?

You’re a smoker. But, like, a vampire smoker. Only smoking at night might be down to associating cigarettes with relaxing and unwinding, so it wouldn’t make sense to be jumping up from your desk to smoke outside in the freezing cold during the day. But smoking owls often have a vested interest in hiding their smoking from their employer and colleagues. What used to be a common and fairly socially acceptable habit has now become something many people feel they have to do in secret in their homes – thing is, you're still smoking the same amount of cigarettes in a 24 hour period, and your lungs don't react any differently when it's dark, so you're just kidding yourself.


You smoke, but you’re giving up. You even have a deadline: you’re going to start giving up when you’re 28 and definitely stop when you’re 30.

What does this mean?

You’re a smoker, obviously. And that giving-up-by-the-time-you’re-30 chatter? Actually, it’s not the worst plan in the world – if you actually do give up. Prof Britton says: 'It is true that every single cigarette at every age does you damage, but it’s also true generally in medicine that you can do pretty much what you like to human bodies until they’re about 35. The evidence from the British doctors study... showed around a 10-year loss of life in smokers compared to non-smokers, but those that stopped before they were 35 really didn’t have any different life expectancy to those that never smoked.' So, just-for-now smokers, your plan is risky but could work – as long as you do actually stop before 35. When it comes to lung cancer, everyone’s risk increases as they get older because ageing is the worst thing you can do to your body (worse than smoking). Young people have the smallest chances of developing lung cancer, and every cigarette multiplies it – but because you’re young, multiplying it has a pretty trivial effect. Prof Britton points out: 'As you get older and have smoked for longer, that multiplier increases progressively with every cigarette, so by the time you get into your late 40s and 50s you’re starting to talk about a serious risk.'

Again – definitely not saying you should smoke like a French poet with a deadline until the day before your 35th birthday. But if you wanted to, then it's better than starting aged 35 and smoking 20 a day until you're 80. At least you've done it sort of the right way round.


The only time you ever smoke is when you trip and your lips fall on someone’s cigarette filter just as you happen to be inhaling.

What does this mean?

You’re not a smoker. But you are very clumsy, and you’ll be a BuzzFeed gif before the year is out if you don’t pull your socks up.

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Follow Erica on Twitter: @ericabuist

Picture: Lukasz Wierzbowski

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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