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Exploring social smoking in Columbia

Some say lighting up is a way to unwind with friends

February 17, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CST

The aroma of strawberry tobacco fills the apartment. Rain hits the pavement outside as four friends enjoy the dry haven of MU junior Scott Clay’s quaint College Avenue apartment. Clay and his friends settle in for a relaxing Friday night of smoking — the perfect escape from any obligations and the whipping wind. Two women share a large black beanbag chair and a cigarette. A hookah in the center of the room bubbles as a song by Sean Kingston drowns out the white noise of the television.

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Clay and his friends represent a new generation of smokers that has emerged as the latest blip on the American smoking culture timeline. They light up on weekends with friends, take a break from their cocktails to have a cigarette and bum a smoke from strangers instead of buying a pack. They are social smokers.

A nonsmoker before college, Clay, a finance major at MU, lights up to unwind. His father and grandparents are regular smokers, but Clay smokes cigarettes only when he drinks alcohol and averages one cigarette every hour he drinks. He enjoys the light buzz he gets from hookah (a water pipe used with flavored tobacco) but craves cigarettes with his alcohol.

Mark Reed, a professor at San Diego State University, defines social smoking as “smoking that occurs with other people and, at times, in conjunction with drinking.” Reed says the overall number of smokers has decreased in recent years though rates of occasional smoking have increased and are largely concentrated in the 18- to 24-year-old demographic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent data, 25 percent of Missouri adults were cigarette smokers in 2009. That translates to almost 1.2 million people as Missouri tops the list of states with large smoking populations.

Zachary Hagy, 19, says social smoking can include cigarettes, cigars and hookahs. He views smoking as an activity with many social benefits. “It gives people something to talk about and brings people together to do something other than talk to each other on Facebook,” Hagy says. “I know there are negative effects on the body, but there are plenty of other more harmful things I could be doing.”

Although many social smokers don’t consider themselves addicted to nicotine, research shows that any amount of smoking is detrimental. A December 2010 report released by the U.S. Surgeon General revealed that cigarettes today are more addicting than those made decades ago because they deliver nicotine to the brain quicker. According to a Dec. 9 USA Today article, the 700-page report reveals that “every exposure to tobacco, from occasional smoking or secondhand smoke, can damage DNA in ways that lead to cancer.”

So why do people continue to smoke socially? Although they’re armed with the knowledge of dangerous side effects, some smokers refuse to kick their habit. Smokers often find several perceived benefits from lighting up, including risk taking, stress relief and mood enhancement, Reed says. “People who smoke are risk takers in general,” he says. “They seek sensation and like to try new things.”

Hagy says he’s aware of the health risks but isn’t highly concerned at the moment. Clay has a different story, one that is contradictory but reflects the mentality of many young people who identify as social smokers. “I work out a lot and am very concerned about my health, but (smoking) doesn’t really faze me right now,” he says.

Venture to MU’s Student Recreation Complex, and it would be easy to conclude that many college students take care of themselves. However, social smoking fits in easily with the typical college social scene. Alcohol, a common factor in many college students’ social lives, has been found to be a strong link to social smoking, Reed says. In addition, many college students take part in binge drinking, which the CDC defines as consuming five or more drinks every two hours for men and four or more for women.

The Dec. 9 Surgeon General’s report coincides with the efforts of the tobacco-control movement that has emerged in this country. Mansoo Yu, an MU College of Human Environmental Sciences professor, says psychologist Richard Doll’s 1950s research linking smoking to lung cancer began an American tobacco-control movement. After years of smoking being seen as the norm, the research started an anti-smoking trend and created a movement that has spanned more than 50 years.

The official anti-smoking campaign in the U.S. has been strengthened. On Nov. 10, the Food and Drug Administration proposed a new rule that would require graphic warning labels to cover half a cigarette pack and the top 20 percent of all cigarette advertisements. The FDA will make a final decision about these graphics by June 22 as mandated by the Tobacco Control Act. The labels will feature graphic drawings or photos illustrating the dangers associated with smoking and will be accompanied by text stating smoking is addictive and that it kills. The pictures will feature such things as a “diseased lung, a corpse and a man smoking a cigarette through a tracheotomy tube,” according to a Los Angeles Times article.

The label proposal represents an attempt by the FDA to reach young people as research has found current cigarette warnings to be ineffective on youth. “In addition to increasing consumer awareness of the health risks of smoking, the proposed graphic warnings also seek to impact changes in smoking behavior,” the proposal says.

For now, warning labels and health risks fail to worry social smokers. Back at Clay’s apartment, the hookah continues to bubble and is passed around the room. The 1-foot-tall pipe is a combination of glass and metal with a single hose attached to it. Clay takes the hose, sucks on the valve and lets the smoke accumulate in his mouth before exhaling in one large puff.

Come coughs or cancer, social smokers blaze on. “It’s a phase in college, so you don’t think about how it affects you,” he says. “It’s pure ignorance of being young.”

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