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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 December 2003, 11:08 GMT
'Tis the season to smoke at parties
By Megan Lane
BBC News Online Magazine

As the festive season gears up, many a party-goer who professes to be a non-smoker will light up. But are these social smokers kidding themselves about their habit?

Beth, a 27-year-old teacher, says she is a non-smoker. Yet every so often when she's out with friends, she makes a dent in a packet of fags. Not hers, mind. Only smokers buy their own cigarettes, she says. Instead she cadges smokes off her fellow drinkers.

"I just find that sometimes I need a cigarette. This craving is always when I'm in a pub or club after I've had a few. I don't know if it is self-loathing or a physical reaction to the tobacco, but my hangovers are worse if I've been smoking."

And with December's social whirl ahead, Beth says she will probably smoke more this month than during the year as a whole.

"I can stop any time I want to; I'm no nicotine addict. But I won't say no to a cigarette or 10 at the office Christmas party. It's a chance to let my hair down - and drinking and smoking a bit too much gets me in a party mood."

Helen, a recent graduate, says she hadn't smoked before she went to university.

"In a new town with new friends, I started to say yes in pubs or at parties when someone offered around a packet of fags. Now if I have a drink in one hand, I often have a cigarette in the other."

People under-report how much they do things that are bad for them
Professor Martin Jarvis
While a number of people describe themselves as social - or binge - smokers, only a fraction of the UK's 12 million smokers are genuinely able to light up occasionally, says Professor Martin Jarvis, a smoking cessation specialist at University College London.

"There's quite a lot of kidding going on, not only of the outside world but of yourself. It's like someone saying 'Oh, I eat like a bird', yet they tip the scales at 20 stone. People under-report how much they do things that are bad for them."

Many of those who say they are social smokers either lie about their consumption, or develop a nicotine addiction and so start to smoke regularly.

Professor Gerard Hastings, of the Centre for Tobacco Control Research, says smoke-free workplaces mean many of those who only light up at evenings or weekends are not social smokers at all, but smokers denied the opportunity to have a puff at work.

"We did a study of student smokers here in Scotland. Because social smokers think they don't have a problem - or say they are non-smokers - stop smoking messages seem irrelevant to them."

Body shock

So is this festive binge less harmful than regular smoking? Yes and no.

Patsy from Ab Fab is no stranger to cigs. But what happens to those who light up occasionally?
1 Bad breath, risk of ulcers
2 Sore, dry throat
3 Blood thickens, heart rate up
4 Bad cough afterwards as lungs hack up cig muck
5 Part of lung that prevents inhaling bacteria anesthetised
6 Queasy, perhaps vomiting
"Smoking 20 cigarettes in one night then abstaining is less harmful as it gives your system a chance to recover, and your smoke exposure would be less," says Professor Jarvis.

"Nicotine is an aversive drug - if you go over a small dose, you feel very unwell, so a binge smoker is not going to inhale each of those 20 cigarettes as deeply as their first one. But it is also an addictive drug, and if you smoke occasionally, it can be a slippery slope."

While more men than women die of lung disease, the warning signs are there that smoking is affecting women's health.

While life expectancy is on the up, it is rising more slowly for women than for men, in part due to smoking patterns. A Cancer Research study earlier this year found that women were smoking at a younger age and were less likely to give up than men. Lung cancer has overtaken breast cancer as a cause of death.

Smoke-free pubs

Yet the number of people smoking in the UK has fallen and continues to come down, says Professor Jarvis. Currently about a quarter of the adult population smokes, 26% of men and 24% of women. This compares with a 1950s peak of 80% of men, and a peak among women a decade later of 45%.

Should smoking in indoor public places be banned across the UK - particularly controversial plans for smoke-free pubs - social smoking could well be kicked in the butt.

But while there is considerable support among smokers and non-smokers alike for a ban on lighting up in restaurants, shops and offices, there is considerably less enthusiasm for a crack-down in the nation's watering holes. In a YouGov poll published on Monday, 89% of smokers surveyed said they would oppose such a ban, a feeling echoed by one-third of former smokers and one-fifth of non-smokers.

For this habit condemned as anti-social is, for some, part of their social lives.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

My boyfriend insists he is a non-smoker (making a big fuss when people smoke near where we eat etc) yet all it takes is a pint and proximity to other smokers in bars. He also falls for the "doesn't count if it's from someone else" line of reasoning. I've tried ignoring him when he smokes, I've tried embarrassing him, I've brought him scary literature on lung cancer but to no avail. Why? Because he "doesn't smoke". If smoking was banned in bars then this breed of social smoker wouldn't bother to light up elsewhere, they simply wouldn't be smoking.
Louise, UK

About 10 years ago, I used to smoke socially, especially around my mates. I then met a girl who I really liked and she thought I was a non-smoker but caught me having a crafty ciggie. She had lost her Dad when she was six to a smoking-related disease, her stepdad to lung cancer, and she blames her own asthma on being bought up in a smoking environment. She told me there and then that it was a simple choice between her and cigarettes - no matter how infrequently I smoked them - as she wasn't prepared to watch someone she cared about die again. This beautiful girl is now my wife and I haven't had a cigarette since.
Mike, UK

I gave up smoking 6 months ago, and certainly miss having a smoke and a pint, especially after a hard day's work, and I don't think that feeling will ever fully disappear. That's why I think it is a bit harsh if smoking is banned in pubs. More pubs should adopt smoking and non smoking areas, then it's down to the individual to choose.
Jules, UK

When I was at university I was a social smoker. But when my Nan died of lung cancer, that was it. It didn't take any effort to stop, and I would say to people who just have the odd one, stop before you really do get hooked. I wouldn't think of smoking now even when plastered.
Liz, UK

Unfortunately "I only smoke socially" often leads to "only when I am in the pub" which pretty much inevitably leads to going to the pub in order to smoke. While those little white buggers can't MAKE you smoke them (and I've got Nicorette gum to make sure), they have a damn good try. It's been cold turkey again since last night at the pub and it probably shows.
Pete Nightingale, UK

I class myself as a social smoker, as I only smoke at weekends when I have a drink. My partner does smoke and I hate it. I do feel that I only smoke because he has cigarettes when we go out, as I would never opt to buy them, and would rather spend the money elsewhere!
Amy W, UK

I am a smoker who periodically decides to give up but invariably ends up starting again, after kidding myself that social smoking is ok and I won't get me re-addicted. I would personally welcome a nationwide ban on smoking in all public places as this would assist me in giving up once and for all.
Matt, UK

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