Smokers may worry that trying to quit will alienate them from other smokers, said co-author Megan E. Piper of the Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But in practice, people who quit actually gain non-smoking friends, she told Reuters Health by phone.
"That's definitely a concern that smokers will tell us; they are worried that their friends won't want to hang out with them," Piper said. "Our data suggest they will have fewer smokers in their network but they don't end up with fewer friends."
Smoking is less common now than it's been for many years, so if you're in the market for friends, the nonsmoking community is much bigger, she noted.
"This is the first time we've looked at what happens to the social networks of people who do and don't quit," she said.
Piper and her coauthors analyzed the social networks of 691 smokers enrolled in a smoking-cessation trial, including number of friends, new members, smoking habits, and romantic partner smoking.
Over a three-year period, participants were tested for chemical by-products of smoking to assess whether they had successfully quit, and the researchers matched these results to changes in social networks over time. Participants filled out surveys, first about the 14 most important members of their social networks, and later about the nine most important members.
The researchers classified social networks in several ways: large with many smoking buddies, large with few smoking buddies, small network of friends with a smoking romantic partner, and small network of friends with smoking friends.
People who had quit by year one and two had also experienced social shifts, usually to less contact with smokers and to larger social networks overall, as reported in Nicotine and Tobacco Research.
"Perhaps you haven't gone and joined a group or team or done an activity because you've been worried about not being accepted because you're a smoker," but when you quit those activities are more attractive, Piper said.
And smoking may be the activity around which a friendship is built, but when you quit you learn that you have little else in common, she said.
"As doctors listen to smokers and hear what their concerns are, this would be an opportunity if someone expresses a concern about losing friends," she said. "You may not be friends with all the same people if you quit smoking but you will have friends."