Research update: Social smoking may be just as risky as regular smoking

Think a cigarette only once in a while keeps you clear of the health risks associated with smoking? Think again. A study published in May 2017 found that people who self-identified as “social smokers” had the same level of risk for hypertension (high blood pressure) and high cholesterol as people who identified as “current smokers.” Hypertension and high cholesterol are both considered risk factors for heart disease.

The Study

Researchers surveyed 39,555 people in community settings on self-identified smoking status (current smoker, social smoker, or non-smoker), blood pressure, and total cholesterol. They found that social smokers had a significantly higher risk of having hypertension and high cholesterol than non-smokers, but not than current smokers. The researchers concluded that there was no difference in the prevalence of hypertension or high cholesterol between the social smoker and current smoker groups.

Limitations

The study, although interesting, is wrought with limitations. For one, the amount of smoking was self-reported – a method of data collection that is notoriously unreliable. For example, it’s possible that people who characterized themselves as social smokers actually smoke more than they think.

Second, past smoking behavior was not noted. So social smokers could have had a history of smoking more even though they currently smoked only socially.

Third, the researchers did not control for other aspects of the participants’ lives such as diet and exercise, which, potentially, could have significantly skewed the study.

And, last, the researchers looked only at hypertension and high cholesterol, which do not by themselves mean someone has or will get heart disease.

Conclusion

Despite the study’s many flaws, I have no doubt that social smoking does increase the risk of health problems associated with smoking. Any time you expose yourself to harmful chemicals, there’s some risk. And social smoking should certainly be discouraged. Whether social smokers are really at as much risk as regular smokers, though, is still up for grabs in my book.

You can find the study here, and another brief summary here.

Thanks for reading!

 

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