Today, Saturday 31 May, 2008, is “World No Tobacco Day”. There are more than one billion smokers in the world. I used to be one of them. I had smoked for some 20 years and towards the end I was smoking 60 sticks a day – 40 filtered ones and 20 of the unfiltered fragrant clove cigarettes from Indonesia.
Tobacco is the leading preventable cause of death in the world. It is the only legal consumer product that kills one third to one half of those who use it, with its victims dying on average 15 years prematurely.
According to the World Health Organization, the promoter of this annual world anti-smoking campaign, 100 million deaths were caused by tobacco in the 20th century. If current trends continue, there will be up to one billion deaths in the 21st century, or a ten-fold increase.
Tobacco use is one of the biggest public health threats the human race has ever faced. The tobacco epidemic is man-made and entirely preventable. Yet only 5% of the world’s population live in a country that fully protects its population with key policy interventions.
I quit 18 years ago. Had I continued puffing away at that rate I would have burned up more than RM200,000, at today’s prices. That’s more than the price of my house. The epidemic is shifting to the developing world. More than 80% of the world’s smokers live in low and middle income countries. In some developing countries, the lowest income group spends more than 10% of their household income on tobacco.
I may also have been dead by now. Tobacco kills up to half of those who use it. Tobacco use kills 5.4 million people a year – an average of one person every six seconds. It is a risk factor for six of the eight leading causes of deaths in the world, according to WHO.
I was a chained-smoker – I was chained to nicotine. I didn’t know nor did I care. I began my day with a smoke; there was no need for breakfast other than a cup of kopi O. Sometimes I smoked more when in the company of pub crawlers. But it was easy to give up drinking, as I was merely a social drinker and disliked alcohol.
Giving up smoking was much more difficult. It was only after I became a Christian that I was determined to give up as the church frowns upon smoking. But hard as I tried I couldn’t. It was then that I realized that I have become hooked on tobacco. I had become an addict, no different from a drug addict. Make no mistake about it. Tobacco is a drug as it contains the highly addictive psychoactive ingredient, nicotine. That was a shocking revelation to me. I needed to unchain myself. Desperately.
Like any addiction, a probable way to recovery is following the “12 Steps Alcoholics Anonymous” or in this case, “Nicotine Anonymous”- a non-profit 12 Step fellowship of men and women helping each other live nicotine-free lives. The first three steps are simple enough to understand but painful to acknowledge.
Step #1 – We admitted we were powerless over nicotine – that our lives had become unmanageable.
Step #2 – We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Step #3 – We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
So with this larger-than-life force, I overcame tobacco addiction 18 years ago by taking the first three of the 12 steps in a church in Perth, Western Australia.
Today I celebrate “World No Tobacco Day”. This is more than just an escape from nicotine and insanity. It’s more than a moral or health problem. It’s a global epidemic of unprecedented proportions.
Yet tobacco use is common throughout the world due to low prices, aggressive and widespread marketing, lack of awareness about its dangers, and inconsistent public policies against its use, according to the World Health Organization.
While there is a growing understanding that tobacco is not good for health, few people fully realise the devastating effects it can have on the health of both users and non-users exposed to second-hand smoke. Almost half of the world’s children breathe air polluted by tobacco smoke.
WHO also debunks the myth that smoke-free places infringe smokers’ rights and freedom of choice. “Most people do not smoke and most who smoke want to quit. Many smokers do not use tobacco by choice, but continue to consume tobacco because they are addicted to the nicotine in all tobacco products.”
There is also a connection between tobacco use and poverty. The net economic effect of tobacco is to decrease an economy’s productive capacity through death, increased poverty and higher health care costs. The tobacco epidemic makes global health inequalities worse.
In most countries, tobacco use is higher among the poor than the rich and the poor suffer more from the consequences of tobacco-related diseases, creating economic hardship and perpetuating the cycle of poverty and illness.
Given the grim scenario, there is cause for optimism that the epidemic can be stopped. WHO pointed out, “Tobacco control efforts are gaining momentum globally – we are at a unique point in public health history, as the forces of political will, policies and funding are aligning to dramatically reduce tobacco use and save millions of lives.
“New partnerships are being formed and an unprecedented effort is now under way on a global and country level to conduct effective monitoring, to develop, implement and enforce policies and to counter tobacco industry lobbying. The means to curb the epidemic are clear and achievable. Countries that have already begun putting in place the key strategies have experienced dramatic declines in tobacco use.”
There is life after tobacco addiction. The world can be a healthier place. To the one billion who smoke, you have the choice to quit. It’s possible. Remember Nicotine Anonymous? To the rest of us who don’t, please continue to take part in the global campaign against the tobacco industry.
More information can be found on the WHO website.