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Nights on the Town and Celebratory Cigars Increase Cancer Risks

Why social smoking is not glamorous

November 2009

By Rachel Winters

Holding a martini in one hand and a cigarette in the other is not as glamorous as it looks in the movies. Social smoking doesn’t just lead to premature aging, bad breath and a pile of smoky, stale clothing the morning after, it also increases your cancer risks.

“Any smoking, even social smoking, is dangerous,” says David Wetter, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Health Disparities Research at M. D. Anderson. “Cigarettes and cigars are the only legal products whose advertised and intended use -- smoking -- will cause cancer and kill the consumer.”

Now that most bars and clubs across the country have banned smoking indoors, smokers and social smokers gather on outdoor patios or in front of their favorite watering holes. Having just a few cigarettes can make you feel like part of the crowd. It might feel like a natural part of a night out on the town. ‘What’s the harm in just having just a few cigarettes,’ you might wonder? 

“Science has not identified a safe level of smoking, and even a few cigarettes here and there can maintain addiction,” Wetter says.

The 1982 United States Surgeon General's report says, "Cigarette smoking is the single major cause of cancer death in the United States." Today, 27 years later, this statement is still true.

Cigars on Sunday afternoons are just as bad

Social smoking isn’t just about cigarettes and nights out on the town with cocktails and friends. It also is about cigars, which have become a ritual part of many, mostly male, celebrations and social occasions. Smoking an occasional cigar might be seen as more sophisticated and less dangerous than smoking cigarettes. One large cigar; however, can contain as much tobacco as an entire pack of cigarettes.

“Cigars are completely unfiltered and have very high levels of nicotine,” Wetter says. “Even smoking a cigar every once in a while increases your cancer risks. People think that if they don’t inhale, they don’t increase their cancer risks, but they are wrong. The body absorbs harmful carcinogens through the lining in the mouth.”

One cigarette can give the body about one to two milligrams of nicotine. Cigars can contain anywhere from 100 to 444 milligrams of nicotine. Studies have shown that cigar smokers, even those who don’t inhale, are four to 10 times more likely to die from cancers of the mouth, larynx and esophagus than non-smokers. For those who inhale, cigars are linked to death from pancreas and bladder cancers, too.

“It is a myth that cigars aren’t addictive,” Wetter says. “They are just as addictive as cigarettes. They also cause other health problems, just like cigarettes do. Any kind of tobacco use can lead to heart, lung and gum disease.”

In our society, most people see smoking cigars as a luxurious past time. Cigar experts taste, review and rate cigars, much like fine wine and cheese. This makes cigar smoking appear to be macho or part of male bonding. The American Cancer Society points out that cigars are not just bad for a man’s health, they also are connected to impotence.

Social smoking is especially dangerous for ex-smokersno smoking

“If you are a former smoker, data suggests that having just a single puff can send you back to smoking,” Wetter says.

Social smoking can be very difficult for ex-smokers because people who once smoked still feel a reward after smoking just one cigarette, even a decade after quitting.

“Many people quit smoking and then start again before they can finally stop,” Wetter says. “This is normal, but social smoking is one of the quickest ways to get addicted again. Social smoking is a definite no, even just one tiny puff, for anybody who has quit.”

For ex-smokers, Wetter recommends always being ready for times when there will be people around you using tobacco. Bring toothpicks, gum or grab a few straws at the bar to chew on to fight cravings. Remember that the more alcohol you drink, the weaker your willpower will be.

Drinking alcohol can lead to smoking

A night of drinking can lead to a Big Mac® attack. This can be a disaster for dieters. The same thing is true for smokers. Alcohol lowers your inhibitions and primes your brain’s reward centers. This means you are less likely to think through dancing on the bar, chowing down on a fatty hamburger or picking up a cigarette.

“The more you drink, the more likely you will be to slip when it comes to many things. This includes tobacco use,” Wetter says. “Drinking can cause you to crave cigarettes.”

Do not feel as though you need to lock yourself in your home to reduce your cancer risks. Instead, pay attention to how good it feels to be social and to spend time with friends. Your friends, family and co-workers prefer your company when you are happy and healthy. Guaranteed.

Related Links

Smoking and Tobacco (M. D. Anderson)

Questions About Smoking, Tobacco and Health (American Cancer Society)

Questions and Answers About Cigar Smoking and Cancer (National Cancer Institute)

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center