I promised myself I would never be one of “those ex-smokers”.
You know, a reformed character who evangelises about the way I can get up a hill without wheezing or buy new shoes because I am not giving the multi-national tobacco giants the lion’s share of my wages.
But here I am, breaking that promise. The truth is, I can get up a hill without wheezing, and I have some really great shoes.
Like many teenage tearaways, I took up the habit at age 14 because I thought it made me cool. Something had to.
I never imagined the 30-something version of myself would still be doing it. Two decades on, I was finding moments to sneak off into the driving rain and howling wind to satisfy the need for nicotine.
On one such occasion, I was at a dinner for nurses and started preparing for a between-course ciggie.
“You know, it’s not just lung cancer you need to worry about,” a lovely nurse at my table told me. “It’s all cancers: breast, bowel, everything. The single best thing you can do for yourself is quit.”
After politely rebuffing her concern for my wellbeing, I carried on with my ritual, silently muttering about the cheek of people. “No one tells me what to do,” the 14-year-old still living inside me spat.
Data, data, data
But the seed had been planted. You can’t do this job and not be influenced by the mountains of data you see on a daily basis in journals, at conferences, in press releases, from the scientists themselves.
Last year, 17% of everyone aged over 35 who died in the UK did so because of smoking.
You are 50% more likely to develop MS if you smoke. Once diagnosed, if you continue to smoke, you are 50% more likely to reach the stage of needing a stick to walk 100m.
Smoking causes a total of 64,500 cancers every year, including that of the mouth and upper throat, liver, pancreas, bladder, ovary and cervix.
The chances of developing Crohn’s disease are between three to four-fold higher in smokers, who tend to have more aggressive disease course and more relapses if they don’t quit.
It is also a significant risk factor for vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s, with smokers twice as likely to develop the disease. They are two to three times more likely to have a stroke than a non-smoker, a figure that rises to 20 times if the smoker also has high blood pressure.
An estimated 12% of type two diabetes in the USA is attributable to smoking. If we apply that logic to the UK, that means as many as 360,000 cases could be linked to the fags.
‘One of those…’
Little by little, study by study, presentation by presentation, it sunk in, and I gave up in January. There have been a few relapses, the odd puff here and there, and I still have a controversial “vape” on a night out.
Yes, it’s been tough – you don’t notice that you have built your whole life around having a cigarette until you stop. The time you get up, the extra five minutes on the journey to work, the regimented 11am and 3pm smoke breaks have all become part and parcel of the fabric of being you.
I was at sea for a while, and I wasn’t a nice person to be around for even longer (sorry, everyone) but I would like to think I have got there.
The hardest thing now is not being “one of those ex-smokers”.
I am a journalist, my natural reaction to acquiring knowledge is to share it with as many people as possible – but they don’t appreciate being told about the latest study while trying to enjoy the pub, or a tea break or a quick smoke in between the starter and the main course. I know that from experience.
There is good news. The number of smokers in the country is declining, and latest figures show 18.7% of the UK population admitted to the habit last year, compared to 19.8% in 2012.
Of the 8m of those who live in England, two thirds say they want to quit, so maybe more could be done to support them.
Even if you think it is a symptom of a “nanny state”, you can’t argue with the impact of Public Health England’s Stoptober campaign.
More than 256,000 smokers are taking part, on the premise that if you can stop for 28 days, you are five times more likely to stop for good.
Ultimately, I think there is a little of the 14-year-old in all of us – none of us want to be told what to do – but with celebrity backing, slick advertising and free NHS support, a good proportion of those may soon find themselves running up hills and buying new shoes.
Since I choked on my first cigarette in an alleyway between the playing fields and the railway line while bunking off PE, kids have changed.
In 1999, 54% of secondary school pupils said it would be acceptable to try smoking “to see what it was like”, though that figure stood at 31% in 2012.
Asked whether it would be OK to smoke cigarettes once a week, 25% said yes in 2003, compared to 13% in 2012.
Attitudes are changing, and as 66% of smokers say they started before the age of 18, maybe we are moving towards a smoke-free generation.
In the meantime, I will keep my head down, enjoy filling up my lungs with the sweet, sweet sea air and try not to look too smug.
Published on: October 15, 2014