I have been a smoker from my Sainik School Grade 11 days – from the age of 16. Then as a young teenager in the late 70s, it was all about imitating movie stars. In those far away times, it was cool to smoke both on and off screen. Time was when the great Tamil Superstar Rajanikanth emerged on screen with a cigarette in hand and his bag of tricks. He would flip a cigarette to his lips with uncanny flair and even light a tossed up cigarette with a single shot from his revolver. From Hollywood to Bollywood many including the likes of Gregory Peck to Amitabh Bachan were not far behind. So yes, I simply wanted to be cool. Or was it an adolescent’s act of defiance? Was I telling the world “I am no more my mamma’s boy” or perhaps “I am grown up now and I am tough!’’?
At the time, I had no idea that three out of four adolescent smokers continue to smoke for most of their adult lives, and one out of the three, would prematurely die of some smoking related issue. Years later when I joined the army, smoking continued to flourish aided by the encouraging environment where it was both macho and fashionable to smoke. In our courses of instruction, many a class would commence with the instructor announcing ‘gentlemen you may smoke if you wish’ and would progress with both the class and the instructor being engulfed in a cloud of smoke. It would sound implausible that an ash tray was provided at the desk of every trainee officer. Also, I still remember the formal dinner night banquets in our unit officers mess, at the end of which cigars and cigarettes were passed around as part of the banquet drill!
The Agony and the Ecstasy
Studies are revealing. Statistics show that three fourths of all smokers attempt to leave smoking a few times every year, often unsuccessfully with the average abstinence lasting only three weeks. Nicotine is found to be more addictive than cocaine although in its pharmacologic effects it is much milder. Nicotine is found to increase speed of reaction and improve performance in tasks requiring sustained attention. Per se nicotine is not all that dangerous, it is the tar and other chemicals in cigarette smoke that causes major health problems. Many smokers also feel that smoking is a big help in stress relief, a boredom remedy, and mood enhancer.
I simply relished the act and often reasoned with myself that I really liked it, it helped me in many ways and there is really no reason to give it up but often I went through the cycle of disgust, wanting to give up and restart in full flourish. While serving with our Regiment in Delhi, our revered senior Battery Commander, a chain smoker with whom I shared many a smoke, died of cardiac arrest while undergoing Battle Physical Efficiency Test (BPET), a routine activity in the army. The calamity shocked me a great deal but still it did not deter my smoking. Camaraderie in smoking is just as strong as drinking camaraderie and perhaps only a wee bit less intense than the camaraderie in battle! Smoking friends are simply great friends especially when they come to each others’ rescue as the cigarettes run out.
It was not that I did not want to change, to kick the awful habit of smoking, but just could not do it – for many reasons or rather self found excuses – justifying my continuation to smoke.
My wife Marina, from the day we got married in April 1989 could not make the ‘change’ in me to quit smoking. She tried all the tricks in her bag and ultimately gave up. Whenever she spoke against my smoking, I very tactfully looked the other way.
Back in my Devlali days, I had a close friend in uniform. He was a defiant smoker who used to boast that he will never quit smoking. He, would often tell me quite in jest but with all mock seriousness to place a carton of cigarettes in his coffin, when the time comes. Coming from a practising Christian, the joke reflected his passion for the blue smoke. Then one day his son was diagnosed with cancer and in six months the young one breathed his last. After all the rituals of the child’s funeral, at night he took me to a dark corner of the backyard, hugged me, wept like a kid and said “Reji, I smoked so much that my son ended up paying for it. I never smoked in front of my children, but see what fate has done to me.” The tragedy resulted in his giving up smoking, but I bashed on regardless, so to say. The thought struck me that emotionally disturbing events in the lives of smokers which are perceived as direct consequences of the smoking habit often result in rapid cessation of smoking.
I wanted to frantically quit smoking when: –
- I panted for breath in the high-altitudes of Kashmir and Sikkim.
- Undergoing BPET and various other rigorous physical activities.
- Our children embarrassed me with their innocent questions on my smoking.
- I saw the pools of desperation in Marina’s eyes.
- I did my mathematics to calculate the size of the hole I was burning in my pocket.
But the macho man in me could not and would and do it. Bash on regardless!
In January 2018, my friend-philosopher-guide from my Commanding Officer days, a Veteran Brigadier called me up to say that he quit smoking. We too were smoking comrades both in and out of uniform. It was all because his daughter was diagnosed with cancer. She has fought through it and is hale and hearty now. But this too did not deter me from smoking.
In February 2019, we travelled to Peru to attend my dear friend Vijas’ daughter’s wedding. It was followed by a week-long tour of Peru. After two days I suffered prostate gland enlargement or Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH) and had to undergo an emergency procedure at a hospital in Peru followed by evacuation to Canada. My wife blamed it partly to my smoking habit, but this too did not deter me from smoking.
On my last Birthday – 13 March 2019 – our son Nikhil gifted me a JUUL – an e-cigarette to help me quit smoking. After that, to date I have not smoked. JUUL was founded by former smokers, James and Adam, with the goal to provide a satisfying alternative for adult smokers. JUUL’s policy is that they do not want to see a new generation of smokers.
I felt the need to quit for the past 30 years. I wanted to quit smoking for the past 30 years. So, it was neither ‘want’ nor ‘need’; but was all about a catalyst. Our son gifting me a JUUL acted as a catalyst.
The Way Ahead?
Thanks to the initiative by many production houses and sensible movie stars, scenes depicting smoking is now mostly off screen barring a few senseless ones. Mere statutory warning on the cigarette pack or on screen is simply not good enough.
National Survey on Drug Use and Health, analysis of cross-sectional data from 2006-2013 shows the rate of onset of cigarette smoking among young adults (6.3 percent) was more than three times higher than onset among adolescents (1.9 percent) during this time. Hence all educational effort must target young adults to achieve any worthwhile results.
Banning cigarette advertisements and sponsorship at entertainment or sports events, and prohibiting free sampling of tobacco products and non-tobacco branded items are worthwhile measures to keep young adults off cigarettes. Young adults are less monitored and more independent, thus prone to carry on smoking and using other tobacco products.
Meanwhile the tobacco lobby continues to grow from strength to strength with a profit only motive as their inspiration. Reasonably strong worldwide legislation would be required to shackle the tobacco industry.
We have many miles to go in educating young adults about the awful habit of smoking and use of other tobacco products.