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‘Chippers’: How They Say They Resist

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The thought of lighting a cigarette first thing in the morning makes Johnny Aseron sick.

“I’m a smoker,” says the Topanga musician, “[but] I abhor that.”

Aseron is a rare bird among smokers. Unlike most under the thrall of addiction, Aseron can take it or leave it. He smokes on average a modest three cigarettes a day, five on a bad day. He simply isn’t interested in smoking more.

“I don’t want it to dictate my life,” he says.

He is among an elite group of smokers called “chippers,” originally street slang for casual heroin users. Now it means people who mysteriously seem able to resist indulging heavily in that far more widespread addiction--smoking. About 5% of smokers are chippers, or longtime smokers who puff on no more than five cigarettes a day, according to researchers at the University of Pittsburgh.

“The striking thing we found is chippers were more idiosyncratic” about their habits than full-fledged smokers, says lead researcher Saul Shiffman, professor of psychology. “Some people might smoke if they were feeling good. Another might just smoke when eating and drinking. But with heavy smokers the situation didn’t matter. They basically smoked all the time to keep themselves topped off on nicotine.”

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Chippers like Aseron prefer to smoke in the evening, when they may want to relax with a cigarette. And unlike heavy smokers who cope with work bans by puffing outside the door of their office buildings, chippers don’t bother.

“If you make it difficult for them,” Shiffman says, “they won’t do it.”

For movie executive and chipper Bobby Rock, smoking is a sometime thing.

“I am what you call a self-disciplined smoker,” he says. “Actually, I play poker and I’m always borrowing cigarettes. And there are a lot of smokers in my business. Especially, since I travel overseas, it’s hard to resist temptation in a crowded room in Cannes and London.”

How do chippers resist the siren song of a pack a day?

Researchers speculate the answer may lie in their genes.

“We did find in two different studies that chippers have a different family history of smoking than regular smokers,” Shiffman says. “Family members of chippers tended to be lighter and less addicted smokers as well.”

Rock says that despite a decade as a chipper, he didn’t have it in him to be hooked.

“I guess I’m not an addictive personality,” he says. “First of all, a lot of people around me didn’t like smoking--my brother, the doctor and a girlfriend or two who hated smoking. I’d forget to buy cigarettes.”

That’s not to say chippers are totally free of their habit.

Actor Stefan Gierasch has been a chipper since the early ‘80s and still finds it difficult to quit outright.

“One of the difficult times in smoking withdrawal is when you’re driving,” Gierasch says. “And since you drive so much outhere, it becomes a necessity that keeps you sucking on this thing. I smoke in the car possibly because I’m not allowed to smoke in the house by a wife and daughter.”

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Still, chippers are more likely to smoke for pleasure than their more addicted counterparts, Shiffman says.

“It may help with mood or performance,” he says. “They smoke when it really has some direct payoff, but not the indirect payoff of getting over the pain of not smoking. Clinically, when you talk to people who say, ‘Don’t tell me I’m addicted. I enjoy my cigarettes,’ and you ask them, ‘Which did you enjoy?’ at most they can cite two or three cigarettes they can remember feeling really good. They are on automatic pilot.”

But if chippers think they’re free to chip without risking their health, they’re wrong. Studies show a substantial risk of heart disease, although there’s less correlation with lung disorders.

“They should worry not so much about escalating to heavier smoking if they’ve been doing this for a while,” Shiffman says. “But they ought to realize it’s not completely without risk, although the risk is modest compared to heavy smoking.”

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