Oh, to be packed tightly in a smoking area, surrounded by close friends and perfect strangers, passing around a lighter, asking inane questions like “so what do you study?” between puffs of one of the cheapest, nastiest cigarettes I could get at the corner shop. Social smoking is something I’ve indulged in since I first started going to house parties as a teen. Like many social smokers, for me the emphasis really does land on the social, because the main reason why I started taking people up on their cig offers was to escape the din of people scream-singing for a moment of fresh air and more intimate conversation.
What distinguishes social smoking from simply smoking can be broken down—albeit arbitrarily—into three things: social smoking isn’t often associated with nicotine addiction, it really is mostly social, and it usually occurs alongside pints in a beer garden or a boozy night on the town.
I’m not the only one whose desire to smoke has little to do with smoking. Zoe, a fellow social smoker (who took the time to fill in my carefully curated Google Form on the subject), similarly highlighted the social appeal of smoking. She explained, “There’s nothing more happening than a smoking area. I feel like smoking encourages gossip central, and I’m here for it.” I would agree that, when the club gets a little too sweaty and the tunes aren’t quite hitting, the smoking area is the place to be.
Obviously, there’s more to social smoking than the setting; alcohol often helps turn regular smoking into a social pastime. 70% of the 31 people who kindly took the time to fill in my form (thank you, by the way) reported smoking every or most times they have a drink. However, this is a matter of correlation, not causation; 70% of this same pool of people reported smoking frequently, sometimes, or every day when sober. When we discuss our smoking habits, I think a lot of us social smokers tend to blame it on the booze—as though smoking is only something we do when our senses are inhibited enough to be unbothered by burning throats and stinky fingers.
In reality, many of us social smokers have enjoyed the odd sober cigarette; I often have one (or several) with my cool PhD friend whenever we go for coffee and a walk. I’ve indulged in cigarettes on my morning walks to the library, too, partially for the buzz I gain from a nicotine rush which jumpstarts the fried engine that is my brain, and partially for the Cool Girl aesthetic (as cringeworthy as that is to admit). I know it’s lame to smoke because it looks cool, especially given how out-of-fashion smoking has become in previous years thanks to numerous public health campaigns (and fair enough!). But there is a little something—I’m not sure what—in rushing off to the library, coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I suppose it makes me feel like an Adult Woman.
Of course, I’m writing this piece well aware of the fact that smoking is bad for you. I do not mean to romanticize nor endorse social smoking, but it is a sociocultural phenomenon that many young adults flirt with during their college years. I suppose the danger is all part of the fun (as is the case with most drugs). When speaking to whether they ever worry about their social smoking, addiction came up many times; some of my respondents cited “developing a full-blown addiction” as a concern, but many said they aren’t worried about their habit because they know it isn’t going to go any further. Flaunting one’s lack of addiction often follows our confession of social smoking; having gone weeks without smoking myself, I understand the particular thrill that comes from knowing you can stop anytime you want.
Besides addiction, another way social smokers separate themselves from full-time nicotine fanatics is in their rejection of vaping. 61% of the people I surveyed said that they wouldn’t consider vaping—a trendy and potentially (though that’s up for debate) healthier alternative to smoking tobacco. Social smokers’ rejection of vaping suggests that nicotine isn’t the primary attraction of social smoking. Maybe vaping is less attractive because it doesn’t involve huddling together outside, in whatever weather, passing around a light and waiting until you’ve collectively put out the stubs before facing the music again. Vaping isn’t a social activity in the way that smoking can be.
I’ll be honest: writing this piece has me craving a cigarette. Not for the nic rush, and certainly not for the morning-after sore throat so many people noted in my Google Form, but for the small feeling of community between a circle of friends (or strangers) passing a lighter between them, having successfully “bummed a cig.” Bad for you as it may be, it is fun—and after all, life is short.
By Alice Garnett