I can still recall the first cigarette that I choked back. I was eleven years old and a friend and I got hold of a package of Peter Jackson cigarettes from somewhere. We went into some bushes and each lit one up. We coughed and sputtered and both soon felt very ill, but with perseverance we could inhale, blow smoke-rings, and generally look as cool as other smokers. Now I realize that nothing looks quite as silly as a child holding a cigarette (except maybe an adult, who should know better, holding one); but back then, in my own mind, smoking made me as cool as John Wayne.
By the time I was into my teens I had changed brands several times and was up to about 30 cigarettes per day. Even in those days it was an expensive habit and I was far from flush with cash. I’m not proud of the means in which I was forced to feed my addiction. They ranged from collecting discarded cigarette butts and rolling the charred tobacco in Zig Zag papers, to stealing money from my father’s wallet to turn over to the tobacco companies (and government in the form of taxes). My father would “preach” to me about the hazards of smoking and there were always real-life examples to drive home the point, but when you’re young you feel invincible and immortal; I shrugged the warnings off.
One of the people that my father worked with got cancer in his lip, which was removed. The surgeons tried to make him a new one by slicing into his shoulder muscles and sewing his lower face onto it hoping that blood vessels would diffuse. They’d planned to rebuild his face but the cancer spread and he died. A father of some of my friends was a life-long smoker who finally got cancer in one of his lungs. He had it removed and his prognosis was good, as he could have survived on his remaining lung for many years. But he couldn’t beat his addiction and continued to fill his remaining lung with smoke. About a year later he was dead. A woman that lived in our condominium complex smoked like a chimney and I remember that she would defensively blow her stack at the mere inference that anyone might curtail her “right” to smoke anywhere and anytime she liked. She got throat cancer which resulted in a stoma. Defiantly, she sucked her cigarettes back through that stoma until the day she died—about 6 weeks later.
No doubt these events impressed my teenaged mind. It made it clear to me that “old” people die; whether of cancer or something else. I continued to feed my nicotine habit while weight-lifting, running, and otherwise keeping “healthy”. By outward appearance I looked the picture of health, but by the time I was in my late teens and early twenties I was up to about 50 cigarettes per day. My father has an old hunting video from those days and I, as a 19 year old, wave into the camera with a hand stained the yellow tinge of chammy leather from the smoke. When I finally decided that enough was enough I was 21 and smoking 2 1/2 packs a day of unfiltered cigarettes. Lucky for me I have an innate stubbornness akin to that of a bull and once I’d made up my mind; that was it. I quit cold turkey and suffered through four or five days of physical withdrawal symptoms, emerging out the other side a non-smoker.
They say there’s nothing like a reformed (enter condition here) for rabidly turning on the object of his or her addiction. That, I admit, is true in my case. Once I had freed myself from my own smoking addiction I jealously guarded my lungs and resented bitterly any inconsiderate smoker who insisted on polluting the air that I breathed. In most instances the solution was simple, I would leave. However, in some cases my departure was not possible; at work, for instance. I incurred a three-year battle with my employer who had no smoking policy at the time. I was forced to sit in the cab of a locomotive with one, two, or even three people puffing away on their cigarettes. As I was driving the train at the time, I couldn’t very well leave them to their vices; but I also wasn’t about to breathe their second-hand smoke either. The result was a very disturbing and long-lived battle between myself and a few others on the one side, and the majority of my co-workers and the management of the company on the other. In the end a no-smoking policy was implemented; that was about eight years ago.
At the beginning of December 2003, one of my former co-workers — a man whom I respected and whose company I enjoyed — was diagnosed with throat cancer. He had been a smoker. He underwent surgery and was recuperating from it when he suddenly died of surgical complications between Christmas and New Years. He leaves behind three small children, a wife, and many other who loved him. He was thirty-nine years old. I am thirty-nine years old. Some of the deceased smokers that I mentioned supra, and other examples that I have omitted, were in their thirties, forties or fifties. When I was a teenager people in their thirties seemed pretty old, like they’d already lived a long life. Now I realize that they were oh so young when addiction to tobacco robbed them of:everything.
As I grow older and more of my acquaintances succumb to tobacco-related diseases my anger grows. I am angry at the shear strength of the tobacco addiction that maintains its hold on thousands of its victims unto death. I am angry at the tobacco corporations that continue to manufacture and distribute a deadly product in the face of overwhelming empirical evidence of its destructive nature. And I am angry at the provincial and federal governments for enabling the continued sale of tobacco products throughout our society; and for reaping enormous tax benefits from the sale of products that cost our Country dearly in resources as well as lives. But even more powerful than my anger is the sadness that I feel in watching people close to me struggle with addictions that will likely lead to their deaths unless they can find a way to defeat them. Unfortunately, I know all too well that quitting smoking is much easier said than done — but it is far from impossible. If you smoke, quit; if you don’t, don’t start.
Wayne E. Benedict has a varied career history and strong links to the Canadian labour movement. He is working part-time toward his Bachelor of Human Resources and Labour Relations at Athabasca University. He is a fulltime first-year student of the University of Saskatchewan College of Law. For a more detailed writer bio, see The Voice writers’ feature page under ‘About The Voice’. If you would like to send article-feedback to Wayne, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org