Spirits are higher and inhibitions are lower during the holidays — but smoking is never a good idea.

There wouldn’t seem to be much appeal on paper in the prospect of sneaking out of a holiday party to stand in the cold, cigarette in hand. Nonetheless, it’s common during the holidays.

Not only can the holidays be stressful – which can be enough to encourage a “social smoker” or past smoker to light up – but they also entail alcohol-filled holiday parties. And alcohol can lower inhibitions, which can make a person more likely to smoke when they otherwise wouldn’t.

Smoking every once in a while might seem harmless, but that may not be the case. It’s difficult to define what level of smoking is considered safe, if any.

“There are very little data with very light smokers, but we do have data from secondary smokers,” said Jorge Nieva, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine at Keck School of Medicine at USC and a medical oncologist at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center of Keck Medicine of USC. “And the data we see in secondary smokers are that smoking is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular death.”

So while there may be little hard evidence to calculate the exact risks of social or occasional smoking, it’s likely worth erring on the side of caution. Plus, smoking every once in a while can lead to a long-term habit.

“I would be concerned that a light smoker might become a heavy smoker because nicotine is addictive, and people are therefore at high risk for increasing their consumption without having a desire to do so,” Dr. Nieva said.

If you stop smoking — both socially and otherwise — you’ll notice changes almost immediately, such as fresher breath, less coughing and increased energy, according to Dr. Nieva. Quitting smoking may lead to weight gain, so those who are overweight may want to consider exercising to minimize that effect. You can even build exercise into your smoking cessation plan.

For instance, if you usually step out for a cigarette after a big meal, replace it with a quick walk. And practice the four Ds – delay, deep breathing, drink water and do something else – to tide you over until the urge to smoke passes. If you make sure that that “do something else” point includes being active, like raking the leaves or sweeping the floor, you’ll benefit both yourself and earn points with your host.

Getting into the holiday spirit (and dealing with the inevitable holiday stress) isn’t worth risking your health. So whether you’re a social smoker or more long-term, consider swapping out that bad habit for a better one.

By Deanna Pai

If you’re in Southern California and you are having trouble quitting smoking, make an appointment with one of primary care specialists to come up with a plan to quit smoking. To schedule an appointment, call (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visit keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment.