Bit Of A ‘Social Smoker’? Here’s How To Kick Your Casual (But Still Unhealthy) Habit

"Once I've a few drinks on me, the urge to smoke is incredibly strong."

I’ve been social smoking for the best part of a decade. Yep, I’m that idiot that resisted cigarettes all through my teens, only to start puffing on a skinny menthol in the beer garden at Friday night work drinks when I was 23. What started off as one or two snowballed over the years into consuming a whole pack at festivals, bumming off mates on nights out, and seeing a cigarette and a few drinks as some sort of strange freedom ritual.

I won’t look at a cigarette the rest of the time, and I wouldn’t dream of smoking outside the context of a night out. It would do nothing for me to light up say, at work, only make me feel dizzy and sick. But if I’ve had a few ice cold alcoholic beverages, or I’m sitting outside in a sunny smoking area, the temptation is all too real. And I know I’m not alone – most of the smokers I know only do so socially as well, and would never think of themselves as real smokers at all.

Neither did I, until every doctor I’ve visited for the last couple of years asked me if I smoked, and I said “Um, sometimes”. I quickly realised that to a medical professional, sometimes means yes. And while I’ve been meaning to cut back, somewhat successfully, it all became very real to me recently on a follow-up to the Colposcopy Unit at Tallaght Hospital. It was time to stop completely.

I’ve had slightly abnormal cervical cells for a while now, so they keep an eye on me there; I’ve had a nasty strain of HPV, the virus that causes cervical cancer, for years and it shows no sign of fecking off. But this time, my changes were marked “high grade” and it said very clearly on the leaflet, in bold, that smoking is known to have an effect and that I should consider stopping. Now, you may have never smoked and still have the same issue, but it certainly does not help, and it’s the first time I’ve had a real wake-up call about my health at the age of 32.

So I am trying to stop altogether, but it is hard. Once I’ve a few drinks on me, the urge to smoke is incredibly strong, and as I’m far more uninhibited when tipsy I tend to think “Ah I’ll just have the one.” But the cravings have started to really annoy me. Why can’t I just stop it, when I don’t desire cigarettes at any other time? I’m not physically addicted, so could it really all be force of habit or association?

“Social smoking is a habit like any other,” says Fiona Brennan, psychotherapist and hypnotherapist, and founder of the popular Positive Habit method of self-help.

There are three components of a habit; the trigger (also known as the cue), the routine which is the behaviour (in this case the smoking) and thirdly, the reward. The trigger in social smoking is so strong because there are so many such associations connected with pleasure to social smoking. The idea of freedom, letting your hair down, forgetting responsibilities, perhaps recalling times when you were younger without as many responsibilities, so the subconscious is very quickly tempted to smoke. There is of course also the trigger of social bonding and there will be people places and situations that compound the desire to smoke. The routine is the smoking and the reward is belonging.

So far, it makes sense. Smoking to me is associated with hazy sunny evenings, the thrill of the weekend, and sheltering from the summer storms in a smoking area with my friends. Somehow, I’ve managed to link positive connotations to something that is in fact incredibly harmful. Fiona says it’s not conscious though, so don’t beat yourself up about it too much.

“As social smoking is usually connected to having one or ‘more’ drinks, our inhibitions are lowered, so our conscious mind loses the control to make decisions and our subconscious starts to kick in, hence why we tend to say things and do things we would not do in our full conscious awareness.”

But do I have to stop going out and having a few drinks in order to stop smoking? “My advice to someone quitting is not to avoid night outs but really monitor the alcohol intake, slow down the pace. Keep hydrated and you keep aware; as the triggers are so strong, you need all of your conscious awareness to combat it. It’s also important to work on visualisation before the night out so that you see yourself sober armoured with self confidence rather than self-doubt.”

Fiona doesn’t recommend any smoking cessations aids like patches or gum, as she says they keep the person dependent on something, and the belief should come from being kind to yourself. However, some people would struggle at least initially to kick the physical association habit, so I asked Laura Dowling, Pharmacy Manager at Lloyds Pharmacy’s Stillorgan store for some pharmaceutical advice.

Smoking aids can mean the difference between successfully kicking the habit for good or not. Your local pharmacy will give you specialist advice on the best smoking cessation aids for you. There are many different types of smoking cessation aids, known as Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT) – inhalers, gum, patches and lozenges. They’re designed to replace the nicotine craving so that you don’t reach for the cigarettes. The inhaler is great for the social smoker as it gives the smoker something to hold in their hands and inhale on, just like a normal cigarette but without all the dangerous tar and chemicals.

However, she also recommends focusing on the psychological aspects. “List the reasons why you smoke, and what you are doing right before you have a cigarette. Could you do something else to meet the emotional needs that your habit is trying to satisfy? Accept that breaking habits is incredibly hard – when you take a step forward be sure to reward yourself but don’t beat yourself up if you fall off the wagon. And as silly as it sounds you should allow yourself to mourn the end of your relationship with cigarettes when you finally kick the habit.”

I don’t think I’m one for an inhaler or vaping as I’m just not convinced, so I’m just going to try and go cold turkey. My family will be delighted so I’ll certainly have their support, but I’m not going to kid myself that it’ll be easy. I guess thinking of my poor little cervix will help, as will realising that my conscious mind is more powerful than my subconscious, and that simply keep tabs on myself, and doing something good for myself will be enough. Maybe it could be for you, too.

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