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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

That would be, of course, the White House. And it turns out there are a lot of occasional smokers like President Obama, and many claim they smoke so rarely that they're not addicted. NPR's Brenda Wilson has this look at that claim.

(Soundbite of people talking)

BRENDA WILSON: With a certain regularity, there's a group that shows up at a local restaurant in Washington, D.C., on many Friday evenings. Conviviality, the talk of politics, sports, no doubt, draw them, but James Schafer, a university math professor, and Dan Bore (ph), a consultant to private companies, also like to get together once a week for a couple of drinks and about four cigarettes.

Mr. DAN BORE (Consultant): Max, four cigarettes a night.

WILSON: You don't have any cigarettes any other day of the week.

Mr. BORE: Never, no.

WILSON: Oh, come on?

Mr. BORE: I'm serious, seriously. Why would I? Why would I lie to you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. JAMES A. SCHAFER (Mathematics, University of Maryland): For a multitude of reasons, Danny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BORE: No, actually I keep my packs in little baggies.

Dr. SCHAFER: Little baggies.

Mr. BORE: And I keep a little wedge of apple in there to keep it moist through the week.

Dr. SCHAFER: I am different from Daniel, because if I buy a packet of cigarettes, then I will smoke it till the end. But if I don't have one, I won't go out and get any.

WILSON: Experts have various names for smokers like Dan and Jim: social smokers, occasional smokers, controlled smokers. Psychologist Saul Shiffman at the University of Pittsburgh calls them intermittent smokers. He's studied them for years now and says they're becoming the dominant pattern among smokers.

Dr. SAUL SHIFFMAN (Psychology, University of Pittsburgh): Many of them smoke when they're alone. They smoke in the morning when they're not having a drink. So, there's a much broader range of smoking among intermittent smokers than we have recognized.

WILSON: And outside of developed countries, they are, in fact, the majority of smokers around the world, who may smoke a few cigarettes a day because that's all they could afford. At one end of the spectrum is what Shiffman calls the chipper, who smokes a couple of cigarettes a day. It's a term also used to describe heroin users who deliberately limit their use of the drug.

Dr. SHIFFMAN: Chippers and intermittent smokers are very unlikely to be the people huddling in their overcoat outside the office, because they don't feel the need to smoke. I emphasize need in the same way that a regular heavy smoker does.

WILSON: Whether smokers have two a day or a pack, Shiffman says they're all smoking for the same reason.

Dr. SHIFFMAN: In the time that I've been doing smoking research, I've watched a handful of companies simply go bankrupt trying to sell cigarettes that have no nicotine. And to me, that's the strongest experiment you could have, that people smoke for nicotine.

WILSON: Even though smokers may have a cigarette occasionally and can go long periods without them, experts say these smokers are hooked. Dr. Joseph Difranza is a family doctor who teaches at the University of Massachusetts. He says light smokers are regular smokers who are just feeling society's pressures.

Dr. JOSEPH DIFRANZA (Family Practice, University of Massachusetts): Most of the non-daily smokers are daily smokers who've cut back, and they keep cutting back, and that's as far as they can get. They haven't been able to give it up completely.

WILSON: He says they seem to have just as much trouble quitting as people who smoke every day. But Difranza also thinks there might be a few smokers who are not addicted.

Dr. DIFRANZA: If these people have no cravings for cigarettes outside of that special situation where they're drinking in a bar, for instance and they could go weeks without a cigarette and it never interrupts their thoughts that they need a cigarette, then they probably have no addiction. Although I think your friend with the stash of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. DIFRANZA: Cigarettes in the freezer is a little suspicious.

WILSON: But Difranza thinks that true non-addicted smokers are a minority, because nicotine changes the brain, creating receptors for nicotine that harbor memories of the smoking experience.

Dr. DIFRANZA: You also have the heat of the smoke. You have the taste. You have the smell. You have the physical component of taking a deep breath and holding it in and letting it out. And all these other physical aspects of taking in the nicotine with the cigarette smoke all help to stimulate the brain also, because, well, maybe over thousands of repetitions, the delivery of the nicotine has been paired or coupled with all these physical sensations of the smoke.

WILSON: Which is why, he says, nicotine in the form of gum, patches or pills don't quite do the trick and why people lapse many times after they quit. It can take up to three months for the mind to settle down and the cravings for nicotine to go away.

Dr. SCHAFER: Who's going to be spending time in the Rose Garden smoking?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BORE: Always the smoking thing.

Dr. SCHAFER: He'll go straight from the basketball court to have a smoke in the Rose Garden.

Mr. BORE: What's he going to do with his butts? Is he just going to throw them down on the grass or...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BORE: Secret Service guys pick up butts.

Dr. SCHAFER: And they all have to take one puff to make sure they're not poisoned.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WILSON: Brenda Wilson, NPR News.

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MONTAGNE: It's Morning Edition from NPR News.

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