'Tis the season of the social smoker

'Tis the season of the social smoker


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 Photo: Matt Cardy

Photo: Matt Cardy

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Often they don't call themselves smokers but this time of year they're lighting up like Christmas trees.

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Often they don't call themselves smokers and they rarely buy cigarettes but this time of year, as the calender fills with festivities, they're lighting up like Christmas trees.

'Tis the season of the social smoker and researchers suggest their ranks are growing as many ignore mounting evidence of the harm to which they are exposing themselves.

John* ,40, has been lighting up no more than once a month for half his life and has never been tempted to go full time. "Not even close," he says.

He hides his habit from colleagues in Melbourne's banking sector and has only agreed to be interviewed on the promise of anonymity.  "There is a stigma about social smoking nowadays," he explains.

Smoking is not something John makes plans to do and for ten years he's been thinking about stopping. He hopes to quit one day, although when asked if he believes he will adds: "There's so many other vices and poisons and drugs in our daily lives and I'm pretty good with the rest of them."

John knows it's bad for him but being such an occasional smoker he's able to minimise that harm in his mind.  This is easier to do for John because unlike heavier smokers he doesn't feel common immediate health affects like shortness of breath or coughing.

"The fact that I can't feel them, it doesn't put them out of my mind, like I know they're there and I know I'm just blocking them out but there's so many things you can be doing that are bad for you," he says.

"You know it's not right but you just add it all up and hope it all evens out in the end."

The desire for just one to four cigarettes continues to strike occasionally when he's drinking with friends but, significantly, not every time. John doesn't know what motivates him to smoke. "I've never been able to put my finger on it," he says.

 Photo: Steve Cassell

Photo: Steve Cassell

An estimated 1.8 per cent of Australians, about 328,000, smoke less often than daily, according to the  Australian Bureau of Statistics' 2011-12 National health survey. That is about 10 per cent of smokers.

"They may not have that strong addiction to nicotine, which means they can just go week to week without having one, but they've probably got themselves into a strong habit where the social cues are triggering them to have one," said Sarah White, the director of Quit Victoria.

Despite a recent study finding long term, low level smoking makes them nine times more likely to die from lung cancer than a nonsmoker, a Victorian study released on Wednesday shows many smokers are still living in denial.

One in three, believes the dangers of smoking have been exaggerated, according to a phone survey of about 4500 Victorians conducted by the Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer.

The Annual Victorian Smoking and Health survey shows the proportion of smokers who believe the public health warnings about cigarettes are overblown has even increased slightly from 29 per cent in 2011.

More than one in 10 smokers also do not believe, or do not know, that smoking causes illnesses. 

The findings come days after a large study was published in Jama Internal Medicine, which backed evidence that even very occasional smoking can be a killer.

It surveyed more than 290,000 older Americans in 2004 – 2005, ten years after first surveying a larger pool, and found those who smoked one to 10 cigarettes a day, even if they had quit by 50, still had a 44 percent higher chance of dying early than people who didn't smoke.  

The researchers, from the US National Cancer Institute, had undertaken the study in response to a growing proportion of US smokers who smoke less than 10 cigarettes a day, which it forecast will continue to rise.

"These results provide further evidence that there is no risk-free level of exposure to tobacco smoke," they argued.

It gets worse for social smokers. Last month, scientists discoveredthat every fifty cigarettes a person smokes causes one DNA mutation in each lung cell.

"That DNA damage accumulates and some of them get fixed and some of them don't but that DNA damage is what causes cancer," Dr White said.

"If someone is having, say, five a weekend that's just a couple of months and you've accumulated tons of mutations in your lungs and any one of those could go on to cause a cancer."

Dr White said smoking remains a leading cause of preventable death and disease in Australia, and kills more than 15,000 people a year.

"There's a really prevalent myth out there, and actually a lot of health professionals believe the same thing, that it's okay to cut down; and one to two cigarettes is not dangerous," she said. "That's simply quite wrong."

For help to quit smoking, you can call Quitline on 137848.

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