Those who dabble in social smoking count themselves among non-smokers and look down on those who do smoke, a new study suggests.
A qualitiative study published in the journal Tobacco Control shows that many people who socially smoke have conflicted personalities - disassociating themselves from smokers.
Many of those interviewed as part of the study were also plagued with feelings of remorse and regret the morning after they indulged their occasional habit.
Social smoking describes when a person smokes intermittently or only in given situations, a behaviour which international evidence suggests to be on the rise among young adults, although smoking has decreased on the whole.
The study recruited and interviewed 13 social smokers aged between 19 and 25. Transcripts of the interviews showed participants often had conflicted identities, said lead author Professor Janet Hoek.
"Smoking is a behaviour that now attracts a lot of stigma. Social smokers are very aware of this and ironically, often look down on smokers and define themselves very much as being non-smokers."
Dr Hoek, a marketing expert at the University of Otago, said many who fell into the social smoker category used strategies to distance or disassociate themselves from the 'smoker' label.
"They said things that they were a social smoker and not an addicted smoker because they never smoked alone, they never bought cigarettes and they smoked only when they were drinking.
"I guess in their own minds they were non-smokers and the conflict of course arises because they are non-smokers who smoke."
By creating distance between themselves and addicted smokers, the participants were able to convince themselves the social smoking behaviour wasn't part of their real character.
Many participants started out by "scabbing a cigarette", or by smoking when offered in a social situation. The next morning a number of participants described feeling unwell, to the extent that some were sick, and were haunted by feelings of remorse.
"So there's that terrible paradox between drinking and engaging in these behaviours and engaging in these behaviours and the kind of regret that they experience subsequently."
The study, titled Social Smokers' Management of Conflicted Identities, was carried out over the period of a month early last year.
The five authors looked at social smoking because they suspected it was riddled with contradictions, she said. Interviewers carried out one-on-one conversations with participants to tease out different questions.
The authors are members of ASPIRE2025, a research collaboration that had been tasked with carrying out research to test and evaluate different policies and interventions to achieve the Government's goal of being smoke-free by 2025, said Dr Hoek.
"From our perspective, I think there's a real public health problem here because we know that smoking does become very addictive very quickly for some people. Some people find that they're addicted in fewer than three weeks which is really astonishingly quick when you think about it. So we have to come up with ways to minimise this behaviour."
Twelve of the thirteen participants thought introducing smoke-free areas outside bars and restaurants was a good idea to help curb the social smoking habit.