Little mimics, big smoke.

This 1950s advert may seem hilarious, tragic or shocking to us now, but some of the ads of today are pure nonsense too. January is silly season: the month when certain people (who work in advertising) want you to feel fat, weak, and less attractive: downright ugly in fact, so that you might buy their products: lots of products. Marketing campaigns will soon be in overdrive to sell you all sorts of stuff related to exercise, fitness, nutrition, and of course to quit smoking.

As someone who smoked for many years, I can relate to the struggles that people endure when trying to quit. Not everyone manages to succeed, while others choose to smoke for life and enjoy it without many health issues. However most people do suffer as a result of smoking. I interviewed women for this piece who are of different ages ( 40+-70+) and appreciate how honest and open they were about their experiences.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood

LITTLE MIMICS, BIG SMOKE.

My grandmother sat at the kitchen table sewing, her eyes squinted into slits of concentration.  I watched cigarette fumes float up around her like an anarchist alphabet; fat Cs, elongated S-shapes, and smoke rings.  The Os were my favourite.  

Spuds bubbled in a pot as the lid rattled and hissed.  The kitchen windows had steamed up and the glass looked good enough for drawing on.  A crisp, smouldering sound brought my attention back to Granny and I saw the tip of her Major glow luminous orange.  She twisted her lips sideways to exhale a long stream of smoke from the corner of her mouth, eyes never leaving the fabric.  After pulling a needle through the thick tweed, as easily as if it were made of butter, she added two more stitches to my grandfather’s jacket before tying knots at the back.  All the while, a plump column of ash clung to her bottom lip, suspended in mid-air.  My own sewing practice and wonky stitches were completely forgotten as I stared at Granny, the curve of dangling ash, and her skill.  She was the most awesome person I knew.  I wanted to smoke like her, but I’d have to wait a while longer: nine-year-olds weren’t allowed.

Photo by cottonbro

Of course adult behaviour influences children, and it is no surprise that long-term studies have found that parents who smoke greatly increase the likelihood of their children taking up the habit.  This piece is not about pointing the finger to ‘blame the parents’ (or grandparents!), however. 

Researchers have discovered that the smoking habits of friends and siblings have just as much influence as parents. In other words, everyone can influence young people, which means that smoking is a much broader societal issue.

Photo by Nadezhda Moryak

Teenagers who take up smoking have not yet fully developed the capacity for common sense when it comes to decision-making.  While adult thinking utilises the rational part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex), adolescent processing of information employs the amygdala which is the brain’s emotional centre.  This explains why teenagers take more risks and engage in unhealthy behaviours such as smoking and drinking alcohol to excess even though they may have some awareness of the consequences.  

Dublin’s Tobacco Free Research Institute found that girls smoked a lot more than boys back in 1995, but by 2015 the gender gap was closed.  They note that “the perception of the risks of smoking has not increased” and follow that up by suggesting that “a media campaign focused on tobacco control might help.”  What their last report did not acknowledge, however, is the impact of neurology. 

As I have already mentioned, teens have not fully developed their rational capabilities.  If the part of the youth brain that responds to situations with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences is still under construction, that tells us that young people need good examples from adults and some support, not our anger.

Photo by Pavel Danilyuk

Debbie began smoking at 13, and her dad got angry when he discovered his little girl was puffing ciggies with her pals. He told her not to play with those children anymore.  He smoked himself, so Debbie was confused and upset by his reaction. 

“As a small child I remember it comforted me to smell fags from my mum smoking”, she recalls.  When her mother explained that smoking was very addictive, Debbie didn’t believe that it would become a problem.  After all, she was only having the “the odd one”. 

At 16 she got a job and was able to buy more cigarettes, and by her 30s she was totally hooked.  Debbie got married and during her first pregnancy the public health advice offered (during the 1980s) was very different to today.  “We were never told about the dangers of smoking” she recalls, “We were just told to cut down to 5 a day if pregnant”. 

1950s smoking advert.

Is it easy for smokers to simply ‘cut down’?  In Debbie’s case, trying to quit made her bad tempered and sick every time.  So sick that she found it easier to carry on smoking, even though it was unhealthy and very expensive.  She knew she had to stop.  Her dad eventually died from smoking related illness and she also felt traumatised after watching her mother die from lung cancer.  Debbie thinks that she may have been “addicted to passive smoking since childhood”. 

Photo by lilartsy

Coined by Fritz Lickint, the expression ‘passive smoking’ refers to the breathing in of other people’s smoke.  It causes disease and serious health issues, even in non-smokers.  By the time of his death in 1960 Lickint, a German doctor who specialised in internal medicine, had declared tobacco addiction a disease. He also suggested therapies, some of which are still being used today.  So what else do we know about the history of smoking? 

Photo by AG

Humans have been puffing their way through rituals for thousands of years.  Historians believe that shamans (community healers who enter altered states of consciousness to interact with the spiritual world) were sparking up back in 5000BC.  Like many things, the tobacco plant ended up being commodified when Europeans popularised its cultivation and trade in the 16th century. 

Marijuana had always been ingested after being heated on rocks or charcoal  (the earliest form of vaping).  Hundreds of years later it was smoked on its own, and later still it was mixed with tobacco.  As a species we have always had an insatiable appetite for trying new things.  By the 1800s opium smoking had become popular in China and the West. 

Photo by Pixabay

By the 1920s Lickint had published his findings on the link between lung cancer and tobacco, but the knowledge that tobacco was lethal for health did not deter people. 

A few decades later some folks even went through a phase of smoking banana peels.  Yes, really. The idea was to get a similar high to the buzz of smoking marijuana by freezing banana peels. The frozen peels were blended into a pulp, then the residue was baked at 200 degrees and smoked in a cigarette or pipe.  The fruity fad took off for a while in America, despite any scientific evidence of psychotropic effects. 

Page 3 of the April 1, 1967 issue of The Sun (Detroit)

As for proof of illness and disease caused by smoking (cigarettes, not Chiquita), there was no shortage of evidence, so by the 1980s smokers began suing massive tobacco corporations in America for damage caused to their health.  In 1998, the four largest tobacco companies in the world made a settlement agreement of $365.5 billion.

More 1950s advertising. The lies!

To readers who have never smoked, it might seem ridiculous that some people continue to put something as toxic as tobacco into their bodies, but quitting is no simple matter.  Nicotine is a highly-addictive, naturally occurring chemical found in the tobacco plant.  Smokers become overwhelmed by cravings for it, and on top of that, hundreds more chemicals are added by manufacturers.  Cigarette smoke has thousands of chemicals in it, and over 70 are linked to cancer.

Then there is the the behavioural impact to consider.   A person might associate smoking with the end of a meal, for example. Someone else might reach for the lighter whenever their stress levels become uncomfortable.  Such deeply ingrained habits do not change overnight, and being smug and preachy to a smoker is of no use to them whatsoever: they know that the habit is dangerous.

Some people smoke for life and get away with it, others don’t.  Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death worldwide, and the good news is that anyone who kicks the habit greatly cuts down on the risk of dying from smoking-related diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, coronary heart disease, and lung cancer.  I don’t have a TV but I guess that ads are still boring and relentless, with models used to try and shame people into buying all sorts of crap. Consumerism and capitalism does not bother to address the issue of shame and ‘failure’, so let’s keep it real here. Most people do not just quit overnight, and there is no reason to feel like a failure. The reality is that most people are addicted to something, whether it is posting selfies, sugar, their phones, drinking, other people, or shopping. I am grateful to the ex-smokers who generously shared their memories of withdrawal discomfort with me as well as examples of what helped them to get clean.

Photo by Sunsetoned

Claire Nolan started smoking as a young teenager to impress a boy, and as a student in art college she was heavily dependent.  She managed to quit in her 30s.  How did she do it? 

 “I honestly asked the Universe to help me quit and read Carr’s book.”  Claire is referring to Allen Carr, who published the multi-million copy bestseller ‘The Easy Way to Stop Smoking’ in 1985.  She continues “About six months later I got what is called a Quincey on my throat: an abscess located right at the back of the mouth. In 2 days, I lost loads of weight and had to be admitted to hospital. My throat closed and I couldn’t swallow, leading to dehydration. A very nice doctor got a syringe the size of a hairbrush and after numbing the area, sucked out the most appalling amount of pus.” 

Claire was in hospital for 3 days.  She saw patients who were on IV drips wheeling their apparatus to the front door to smoke, which reinforced her determination to quit.  Being ill really floored her and she needed some time to recover from the weakness.  “I was away from work, from home, and all the usual triggers for cigarettes.” she says, recollecting how she had no nicotine left in her system after three weeks, “just the psychological need.  I was ratty at certain moments, but Carr’s book points out that no one wants cigarettes for years afterwards, they want them for just a second, and then it is over. That very much helped. A year later I saw someone smoking and found it the most bizarre and strange thing ever, I had no emotional connection to it at all. I still marvel that I used to do it.” 

Photo by Daria Shevtsova

Debbie’s experience of detox was one ofterrible anxiety and stress” on the road to recovery, so she turned to her doctor for help.  He prescribed champix tablets, an antibiotic, and steroids.  She had an allergic reaction and at one point she found herself in the same hospital ward that her mother had been in. 

“I was very scared.  I thought I had emphysema.  It was very hard stopping.  Even with the tablets which are supposed to block cravings, I still had to try so hard. I decided to try one hour, one day at a time.  After every meal Debbie tried not to think about having a smoke.  After a few months it got easier.  “I would have a cup of tea instead.  For a while I ate sweets.  I stayed away from other smokers and told myself ‘Other people don’t smoke I have an addiction’”.  Happily, she got there in the end and has not smoked for many years.

1970s USA smoking advert

Marcella Remund lit up for the first time as a 15-year-old in 1970.  Throughout her years of motherhood, every time she was pregnant and breast feeding, she would stop smoking, but she always started up again once each of her three children had been weaned.  What motivated her to cease for once and for all? “I had a stroke at age 56”, she says. “Smoked my last cigarette in the car, on the way to the ER. Now that’s dedication!”  How did it feel in the first few months?  “I missed it constantly. I loved to be near people smoking, so I could smell it. I didn’t know what to do with my hands/mouth.”  And after a year of being smoke-free?  “I still missed it but felt after a year that I could do it. Took 2-3 years before I knew I was done. Now I can take deep breaths, smell the world again, not get winded walking with grandkids.”  Marcella is now celebrating 12 years of abstinence.

Photo by Pixabay

Anna Duggan started smoking at 11, and it was 28 years before she quit.  She started with ready-made cigarettes, then began rolling her own aged 37. Two years later a lump in her throat terrified her.  “I thought was cancer, so I immediately quit.  It was very difficult”, she remembers, “I cried every day for roughly 5 to 6 weeks.  I Don’t know if all the emotions came entirely from withdrawal, but it certainly contributed.”  Anna drank 4 litres of water to flush her system.  “I had night sweats. I was extremely on edge.”  It all eased for her after 6 weeks or so, although she had occasional cravings for a further 2 years.  Living in West Limerick, she says: “Now, the smell of cigarettes disgusts me and I’m 8 years free from smoking addiction.  I’ll never take another puff!  The difference in my health, anxiety, chest, taste, smell, skin, cash in my pocket…I just wish I had given up sooner.” 

Photo by Daniel Reche

Most people are like Anna: they try to quit smoking without getting help from their GP or any health care worker.  Facebook has numerous support groups for people who want to quit smoking and most of them have tens of thousands of members.  The business of quitting is big business indeed.  Globally, the smoking cessation and nicotine de-addiction market is expected to be worth 21.8 billion US dollars by 2024. This is because of more awareness spreading about the horrific realities of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, cardiac diseases, and lung cancer, as well as various hazardous side-effects of smoking.  The most popular products are nicotine chewing gums and patches. Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT) dominated the smoking cessation and de-nicotine addiction product market in 2015. 

Photo by Sebastian Palomino

There are many roads to recovery.  Former president of America Barrack Obama has abstained from smoking since 2016.  Nicotine replacement therapy in the form of chewing gum worked for him: it helped to lessen cravings throughout his stressful years in office.  He and his wife Michelle wanted to do something to ensure future generations didn’t pick up the habit, and so he introduced the US anti-smoking bill in 2009.  The US still collects massive taxes from the tobacco industry though. Actress Jennifer Aniston was a chain-smoker until she detoxed in 2007.  She has said that exercise was vital to her success.  Another actor who managed to recover from dependency is Matt Damon, who ended up ‘stranded’ in Dublin (in a Dalkey mansion) during the 2020 covid lockdowns.  He told Parade magazine: “The reason you finally quit is because you look at what cigarettes do to you.  Once you realize the consequences, it’s no longer an option for you to smoke. I think that applies to any addiction.”

Frieke Jannsens is a Flemish artist who makes photo works like the one here that present the viewer with images of children smoking.

Jessica Healy knows the score.  The Galway-based poet smoked for 25 years – a quarter of a century-and still managed to stop.  What was her motivation to make the change? “I was at the mercy of nicotine. I was smoking not for pleasure, but because I was an addict.  I wanted to be free.”  She describes withdrawal as “Jittery at first, but I got tips from former smokers about drinking lots of water to flush the nicotine out of my body and that helped. Meditation helped. Breathing helped. The fact that I was treating my body and mind well, and that I deserved it, helped enormously.” How did she feel after?  “It was liberating! I am grateful for 21 years of smobriety”. 

People born after 2008 in New Zealand might never know how it is to smoke and become addicted, because the sale of cigarettes will be illegal from 2022 onwards. As for the rest of the world, who knows what the future holds.

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich

Smoking addiction is an affliction that affects people from every walk of life.  Young children grow into smoking teens who mimic smoking adults.  Teenagers lack the critical thinking required to make informed decisions, and they always take more risks when their peers are around.  Because family and friends are so influential, maybe the best way of halting the pattern for future generations is to focus on interventions and education that is aimed at family groups.  All members need to be involved, not just the young people themselves.  It takes a village to raise a child. 

Vaping is not the answer. Researchers have found hazardous, cancer-causing agents in e-cigarette liquids as well. As for adults, not everyone wants to quit, and we are all different.  Those who are trying need our kindness and support along the way.  There can be intense waves of emotion to deal with during withdrawal, so if someone you know is determined to quit, check in with them.  Ask how they are feeling, let them vent, or maybe try a fun new activity together. Offering a listening ear or a hug to someone who is struggling is a gift. 

Photo by Helena Lopes

RESOURCES IN IRELAND

Women can go to www2.hse.ie/quit-smoking/support-services for a 12-week ‘We can Quit’ programme.

Women and men can avail of the HSE National Standard for Tobacco Cessation Support Programme at  www.quit.ie.

For a qualified, registered cognitive behavioural therapist, look here: https://cbti.ie/find-a-therapist/

Kathryn Crowley lives and writes in Kerry, Ireland. Get in touch to discuss freelance research and writing opportunities.

2 comments

  1. Very interesting read on cause and effects of smoking.
    I agree on all .
    Smoking is just like any other addiction .
    Looking for a buzz.
    When we realise its an addiction ,its easier to say to one self i was not born smoking ,many other people dont smoke .
    Young teenagers dont have an ability to realise the addiction .the damage .

    Like

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