socialsmoker2By LARSON BINZER

After a few minutes of walking down 8th street in Greenwich Village, 21-year-old college student, Jason Hur, who refers to himself as a “social smoker,” finally finds a light. The light comes from a 20-something-year-old man in a small crowd of smokers huddled on the steps outside of a New York University dining hall. The man lights Hur’s cigarette before returning to take a drag of his own, laughing with his friends who also have cigarettes casually dangling between their middle and index fingers.

“I don’t actually like smoking,” Hur says as he walks away from they crowd’s cloud of cigarette fumes. “But when you go outside and you ask for a cigarette from someone or a light from someone, you start a conversation there. It’s a stress reliever and a social tool, especially living in New York City.”

“Social” Smokers

These self-proclaimed “social smokers” now make up 76% of the 1 million smokers in New York City (up from 64% in 2002), according to the NY Department of Health. The general qualification for a social smoker is that they only smoke in social or particular situations, and generally believe they do not smoke enough to become addicted. However, experts say that both of these beliefs are untrue.

Dr. Weiden, a pulmonologist at NYU Langone Medical Center, explains that the addictive potential of cigarettes is equal to that of illegal drugs such as cocaine and heroine, but that most students do not realize this because smoking tobacco is legal.

“There is no such thing as something like ‘social smoking,’” Dr. Weiden says. “Once you start down the path, you change your brain chemistry and become addicted, and it is very difficult to quit.”

Why They Don’t Quit

Although tobacco distributers are required by law to put health warnings on every cigarette carton and doctors frequently discourage smoking, 25.7 percent of adults aged 18-24 continue to smoke, in spite of these potential health ramifications.

Dr. Rebecca Richey, a psychologist at the University of Colorado Denver who specializes in tobacco use and cessation, explains that young people not quitting early on in their lives is often how they gradually become addicted.

Despite this information, Rahul Krismanoorthy, a 21-year-old NYU student and social smoker, does not believe he smokes enough to harm himself or become addicted. “I think the amount of cigarettes I smoke now is unhealthy, but not horribly unhealthy,” Krismanoorthy says. “I’m not worried about lung cancer or anything. These things will not affect you until later in life.”

Early Side Effects

Negative health consequences do not always wait for old age. NYC’s October 2014 “Imagine for Life” campaign, an initiative that aimed to enlighten younger smokers about the health ramifications of even smoking occasionally, highlighted the fact that side effects of smoking can occur almost immediately.

Rae White*, a 20-year-old Best Buy employee from Weatherford, Texas, is an example. She began smoking only socially when she was 18. However, within two years, she found herself addicted to tobacco, smoking five to fifteen cigarettes every day, and feeling the side effects.

“I ended up being able to quit after I realized how bad it was becoming for me because I started coughing a lot more and feeling bad overall, but it was really hard,” White says. “It would have been so much better if I had just never picked up a cigarette in the first place.”

*name has been changed for professional purposes