What does “social smoking” mean and why do all my mates do it?

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What does “social smoking” mean and why do all my mates do it?

If you’ve spent anytime outside a London bar/pub/street corner you’ll have noticed one slightly odd thing: next to the hardcore chain smokers, huddling together to keep their blackened lungs warm, is your non-smoker mate, smoking and chatting away to hide that slight cough of inexperience.

But don’t worry.

He’s only a “social smoker”, meaning he abides by the 3 golden rules which allow claimants to avoid being classified as a smoker, but still enjoy the social benefits of freezing their arses off outside:

  • Social smokers never buy their own cigarettes
  • They only smoke with alcohol
  • And only when other people are present and smoking

How do people still justify smoking, even only socially, when we all know how bad it is for you?

Firstly because, arguably, it looks cool – despite the terrifying health classes at school, the haunting NHS ads and your parents’ threats*. And it looks especially cool when your mate does it. Social smoking allows people to give into peer pressure ideally without the guilt of picking up a serious long-term habit as a result.

A second widely touted excuse it that, as the name suggests, it’s social. The smokers’ section is generally a much better place to chat to that guy you just pulled. And when you’re sat outside a pub on a cold day the collective energy created serves to keep you warm.

A final justification is the belief that the odd cigarette isn’t really that comparably harmful, that when compared to a full-blown habit, and if they make your night out better, who cares? If you aren’t paying for it anyway (see rule one) and it isn’t a regular thing, then where’s the harm in it? For those among us conscious about our health, social smoking is the “healthy” way to maintain the classic cool image, like the 80/20 diet but for your lungs.

Of course, plenty of people don’t think it looks cool, but they probably aren’t fishing around for excuses to justify a semi-habit. And in terms of health, Professor Robert West, of our very own UCL, disagrees. Quoted in the Guardian, he claims that social smokers are only lying to themselves about the dangers. As for the social part, smokers are generally still a minority – and you’re perfectly able to stand in the smokers’ zone and passively smoke instead.

To be honest though, I don’t know where I stand on it – I don’t do it, but it doesn’t bother me. I therefore turned to some random people who happened to be on messenger for advice:

Do you socially smoke?

Gerard Westhoff (Natural Sciences): “No, as I have bad asthma and being around smoke for long makes it worse. But it is often a temptation.”

Anon (Spanish and Latin): “Yes at times…”

Caroline Greaves (Psychology): “Nope, never smoked and never will.”

Danté Kim (German): “Nope.”

Why do you think people socially smoke?

G: “People socially smoke as often bars/clubs are loud, hot sweaty places and a smoking area provides the perfect place to have a nice break from that and friendly chat – social smoking is all about the socialising.”

A: “It’s an immediate way to make a connection with people that you meet and the smoking area in clubs is usually very social so I guess people smoke in order to feel more at ease plus I suppose after time it probably becomes a compulsion to smoke every time you drink/ go out.”

C: “[Social smokers] Don’t want to be seen to be boring person or miss out when people go out for a cigarette.”

D: “Not sure, for high school students it could be peer pressure or they want to look cool. For uni students it could just be a habit picked up from friends (I haven’t seen anybody be pressurised into smoking here at UCL but it could be a different story elsewhere – I hope not!)”

Do you think the government should tighten legislation to stop social smoking?

G: “I don’t see how they could stop social smoking with legislation. Some people will always smoke and their friends will always feel partially obliged to join them. What could they do, enforce a smoke-free chill out area outside clubs? There’re no good ideas to solve it.”

A: “…no because social smoking is probably less harmful than smoking in normal life.”

C: “I think there should be tighter legislation on cigarettes in general but I don’t think it would be possible to stop social smoking through government legislation.”

D: “Yeah they could definitely do more – they could ban smoking areas in clubs, bars and pubs. They could shut down smoking lounges in airports. Even implement an NHS ration on cigarettes? But I guess that could open the opportunities for additional crime like black markets, robbery etc.”

* Not me Mum, I’ve never even tried it.

Featured image credit: Sophie Riches

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What does “social smoking” mean and why do all my mates do it? Reviewed by on October 14, 2015 .

How do people still justify smoking, even only socially, when we all know how bad it is for you?

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Mary is a fourth year languages student, and of the EiC's of Pi online 2017-18.

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