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Students who occasionally light up don’t see themselves as smokers, survey says

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A survey by Wheaton College researchers suggests that many Boston-area college students who occasionally light up at parties and other social events hesitate to identify themselves as smokers, perhaps because of a growing stigma against smoking.

“The term smoker has become so stigmatized that it’s seen as out of control and as problematic of a habit as [being an] alcoholic,” said Michael Berg, a professor at Wheaton and lead researcher for the survey.

“The typical smoker isn’t who we think it is,” Berg said. “It’s now someone who has maybe two to three cigarettes in a weekend.”

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But even occasional smoking, while less damaging than heavy smoking, still increases the risks of heart disease, lung cancer, and a host of other conditions, other studies have shown.

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Cigarette use in Massachusetts among people ages 18 to 24 has been declining for at least five years, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in line with national trends.

The Wheaton survey — conducted online and involving more than 500 students from the Norton liberal arts college and Emmanuel College in Boston — found that 64 percent of respondents who had smoked a cigarette in the previous 30 days did not identify themselves as smokers.

Researchers have long studied the behaviors and health effects associated with “social” or “light” smoking as public health campaigns continue to discourage heavy cigarette use.

Berg said that “social smoking” — lighting up while with friends or while drinking — can take root in college environments, changing the discussion about smoking and complicating efforts to assess trends.

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He said the latest survey provides insight into shifting behaviors and the growing stigma associated with the habit.

“People would admit to cigarette use but not allow themselves to be labeled as a smoker,” he said. “These people see themselves and limit their behaviors so as not to identify as smokers.”

Survey respondents who did not identify themselves as smokers were more likely than self-identifying smokers to report that they typically light up while drinking; that they don’t buy their own cigarettes; that they wouldn’t date someone who smokes; and that they have only a few friends who smoke.

They are also more likely to say they can quit at any time, Berg said, but research suggests that those who call themselves smokers and those who don’t report the same number of failed attempts to quit each year.

Smoking is increasingly associated with lower economic and educational status as people of higher income levels smoke less, Berg said.

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Public health campaigns play up the manipulative aspects of the tobacco industry, he said, implying that smokers have been duped into buying in.

Refusing to call yourself a smoker can be a way to justify the habit, said Elyse Park, director of behavioral sciences research for the Tobacco Research and Treatment Center at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“They know the health implications of being a smoker,” Park said. “[But] someone who smokes not every day might say it’s not bad for me at all.”

Social smokers don’t necessarily deny the health effects, she said, but will compare the risk to that of an everyday smoker to feel better about the occasional cigarette.

Adopting the term would mean mentally accepting the full health risks.

Light smokers are often likely to keep up the habit long term, Berg said, which results in accumulated health effects.

Berg said the research points to a need for new public health campaigns targeting people who might smoke only when they can bum a cigarette off a friend at a party.

“People think, why bother, because they’re just light smokers, but the health effects are real,” he said.

“Borrowed cigarettes are just as deadly.”

The research is being published in the Journal of American College Health.

Sara Salinas can be reached at sara.salinas@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @saracsalinas.