Around June last year I sat one evening silently reviewing my life. I won’t bore you with it all but among my resolutions that day was to try again to quit smoking. I had last tried about thirty years before.
Anyway, a few months ahead of my 60th birthday I had a persistent cough. The GP booked me for a chest x-ray, which did not concern me because only a couple of years earlier I’d had extensive deep lung tests and was given the all clear.
On the day, the radiographer took the two x-rays and as I put my coat back on afterwards, she was staring intently at the screen. “What’s the news?” says I cheerfully. “Your doctor will have to give you that information,” she answered coldly. When she eventually did look up at me she saw the worry on my face, she was immediately apologetic. “Look, your file says you are nearly sixty and yet I’m looking at the lungs of a man half that age,” she told me. When I brightened up and answered, “Yeah?” she added, “It’s obvious that you’ve never smoked a cigarette in your whole life, that’s for sure.”
I started smoking when I was 12 and by 21, I was buying twenty-a-day. By my thirties that became forty-a-day and it stayed that way until my mid-fifties when I switched to loose tobacco and the hassle of rolling them drastically lowered my consumption. I had no intention though of ever quitting. I was the voice of Forest in Ireland as well and persistently defended the right to smoke on radio, TV and in print.
It was in this capacity that I took a closer look at the new phenomenon called electronic cigarettes. In order to speak authoritatively on the subject I studied the technology in depth and bought the kit to try it out. I likened the e-cig at the time to margarine versus butter or grape juice instead of wine. The grape juice is a dark drink not dissimilar to red wine. You pour it onto a glass and sip it too and it helps that I like grape juice. But it isn’t wine in much the same way an e-cig isn’t a smoke. It doesn’t contain tobacco and you don’t ignite it with a match. With an e-cig you inhale steam not smoke and there is nothing like the the taste, flavour or satisfaction that you get from a real cigarette.
So I became, what is called, a dual user. I always had my rolled cigarettes with me but every second time I felt like a smoke, I consciously used the e-cig instead of lighting up. Some days I only smoked four or five cigarettes but could still not have imagined never having one again. In some ways, the results of those x-rays gave me a carte blanche to smoke away to my heart’s content but looked at another way, it could also be seen as a get out of jail free card. Years of heavy smoking had apparently no effect on my lungs.
The cough that prompted the x-ray soon passed off and was put down by the GP as a simple chest cold. As a result, when I concentrated during my aforementioned ‘silent review,’ I came to the massive decision to give up smoking for good. On my first attempt I lasted nearly seven hours before lighting up. The second attempt was better and I managed to stay off them for three days. A second review was needed and this time, there was only one item on the agenda.
Only by being scrupulously honest with myself did I realise what was wrong. I had reasoned that with the e-cig, I would ease the withdrawal symptoms and then it was only a matter of strict self discipline. But the missing ingredient here was the genuine will and wish to quit and what I really reckoned deep down was that I’d try and fail and that was actually fine by me. It’s odd how such conflicting emotions can sit so comfortably with each other in the human mind. Roy Keane calls it, “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.”
So I gave it a lot of thought, got my head in order and then picked a random day on the calendar that would be my last day as a smoker. For no particular reason, that was the 20th of July last year and I haven’t smoked a single cigarette since. It was a combination of desire, will-power and my dopey looking but comforting e-cig. So I sit this morning and review the year just passed. People say, “You must feel much better,” – I don’t! I feel no different. There has been no perceivable health benefit for me. “You must be proud of yourself,” – Ah, no actually. All I did was make a lifestyle choice for my own personal reasons. Big deal! “Do you miss the cigarettes?” – At least twenty times every single day. “Are you ever tempted to smoke again?” – “Let me put it this way, I still have my old rolled cigarette tin near me most of the time and it still contains the fifteen rolled cigarettes that remained in it at bedtime on the 20th of July 2017. “Surely you must be much better off financially?” – Again no! By legally bringing in a year’s supply of tobacco on each foreign holiday, I was able to produce a rolled cigarette cheaply. The cost of a single cigarette in the shops is 50c+, while I roll one at a total cost of 2c, (including filter, paper and tobacco). Smoking five of these a day costs as little as ten cents.
But I have learned a thing or two in the last year. Putting my Forest Ireland hat on a moment I can tell you that the politicians and public health are going about things in completely the wrong way. They simply don’t understand smoking and smokers and what’s worse, they don’t want to. I have no doubt but that quitting smoking requires a genuine wish to do so, the will power to stick with it and a useful alternative to the desirable lighted cigarette. Without the alternative, the other two become much, much harder. But the tobacco control industry uses bullying, coercion and social exclusion to ahem, “Help” smokers. One problem I always hear from smokers and I experienced it myself, is that after the incessant bullying from the tobacco control industry, I had subconsciously become determined never to quit just to spite them. So many others have said the same thing to me in fact.
This opposition to the coercive control of smokers, (and coercive control is a hot topic in another context in the press right now), has actually kept thousands of smokers from trying to quit. Spokespeople for tobacco control are almost universally vile, smug, well-off people who are patronizing and talk down to smokers, if they address us at all. I have not met a smoker who has ever thought otherwise. They peddle us gums and patches from their friends and sponsors in Big Pharma and when these don’t work, as they inevitably don’t, they go straight back to persecuting and condemning us again. The life saving e-cig has been utterly undermined by the tobacco control industry and a cynic might suggest that it could be because the tobacco control industry makes no money from them, but of course, I could never suggest that.
Finally, all those years ago, I had the right to take up smoking. At any time up to 2004, I had the right to continue smoking or quit if I wanted too. Now though, the narrative has changed to, “You have a responsibility to yourself and those around to cease smoking immediately and if you don’t, we’ll fleece you on price, harry you at every twist and turn, encourage others to verbally abuse you and we’ll get laws enacted that will make your life very difficult for you until you obey our commands and do as we tell you to do. Right there you have the best reason I can think of to continue to smoke if you consider yourself to be a free man or woman living in a democracy. You see, you are not free to make the choice to quit anymore because you now HAVE to quit. People who are difficult to like have ordained it to so and are arrogant enough to believe you will obey them. That makes smokers angry I can assure you.
I believe that it just this anger, seething beneath the surface, that prevents thousands of decent ordinary smokers from arriving at the sincere wish to quit and without that, all the patches, chewing gum and even e-cigs in the world won’t work. The tobacco control industry and public health in its current form don’t want to understand this, leaving me with little to celebrate on my first anniversary next Friday!