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Smoke and suffer

A close friend from way back died a week ago, from lung cancer, which had also spread to his brain. I’m sure it was because of cigarettes, as he had been a chain smoker every since I’ve known him. His wife died of breast cancer four years ago, and I think it was—as has been the experience of many wives with smoking husbands—due to second-hand cigarette smoke.

Dying from cancer is one of the most horrific of deaths, a slow torture as the body wastes away, its organs’ functions impeded by these most weird of fast-multiplying cells. Cancer is a sadistic killer, as it even forces the mind to desperately grasp on straws in believing in miracles. It isn’t rare for a remission, which often only means the cruel cancer cells recharging themselves for a final assault on the body. Chemotherapy makes one’s life on earth so much of a hell that many cancer victims decide to forego it and face death. Compared to cancer, another result of cigarette smoking, a fatal heart attack due to nicotine’s clogging of its arteries, is a blessing. 

Perhaps just a decade from now, civilization will wonder why it allowed this cancer-creating addiction to go unchecked, with huge multinationals like Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds spreading death while their non-smoking executives and owners raked in billions of dollars in profits.

It boggles the mind why civilization spends billions of dollars to find a cure for cancer, develop technologies to repair the heart, yet spends a tiny fraction of that to help people become free of cigarette addiction—the cause of all those diseases.

Our country perhaps has spent a billion pesos for the Heart and Lung Centers since they were built in the 1970s. Yet there is not a single cigarette-smoking cessation program in any of our 76,000 barangay health centers There are drug rehabilitation centers but not one for those afflicted with cigarette addiction, which the American Heart Association had long ago concluded has “historically been one of the hardest addictions to break.” Would health secretary Enrique Ona be audacious and recommend an anti-smoking campaign to his smoker boss?

I had been a smoker since high-school and got to be freed of the addiction only five years ago, ironically in Athens where probably half of the adult population smokes. It was only when my cardiac doctor, the kind Dr. Helen Fojas, matter-of-factly told me in one visit: “Go back to me only when you’ve quite smoking. We will just be wasting our time if you continue smoking.” Getting sick without a doctor you trust in a foreign land is actually the worst that could happen to an expat, and I felt I had no choice but to stop—my nth effort to do so.

My last effort before that was when I was in Japan for six months. I joined a three-day Zen retreat near Kyoto not mainly for satori, but to quit smoking cold turkey. It was a success, until I walked home toward the trains, and saw those ubiquitous—damned—vendo machines in Japan selling cigarettes, even those in ten-cigarette packs. “One cigarette won’t hurt,” I thought. One cigarette led to another and after a few months, I was again a two-pack smoker.

I could not conceive of myself as a non-smoker. But I did free myself from it finally. If only this column can convince a single human being to stop smoking, my move to Manila Times is well-worth it.

The book that helped me stop smoking had a corny title: The Easy Way to Stop Smoking by Allen Carr, which I learned later remains the highest-selling book on quitting smoking world-wide. (It’s available in bookstores here.) Some Foundation should distribute free copies of it, and have it translated into Pilipino.

Its basic idea is this: A smoker must be convinced that smoking cigarettes is nothing but an addiction, more potent than heroine and cocaine.

The biology of cigarette addiction has long been uncovered. Nicotine stimulates the release of the chemical dopamine in the brain, which creates a momentary feeling of pleasure and wellness. Yes, that’s also one of the major chemicals that are released in orgasm. Unlike sex though, for some still unexplained reason, that part of the brain that nicotine stimulates craves increasingly more of that chemical, even as the pleasure level diminishes. What happens is that one doesn’t feel well until nicotine is served again. It is the very definition of addiction: you need more and more of it just not to feel bad.

In the meantime, the delivery of that nicotine also delivers 4,000 chemicals, many of which have been proven carcinogenic, such as arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde, and polonium-210. Yes, that’s reportedly the Russian and Israeli secret assassination poison.

It is one’s inflated ego which is the big obstacle to stopping smoking, as in the case of smoker President, who even claimed it as his struggle for freedom: “I think this is part of the little freedom left for me,” he said. It is indeed a tragedy for our country that the President of the Republic is the poster boy for cigarette smoking, which kills at least a 100,000 of Filipinos every year.

Most intelligent smokers really cannot accept that theirs is simply an addiction, even thinking and claiming that they can stop it any time, as Aquino deludes himself: “At the appropriate time, I will stop,” he said. A friend even boasted: “Believe me, I really enjoy smoking, that’s why it’s difficult for me to stop.” A Forbes magazine Filipino billionaire who’s been a chain smoker reportedly had been planning to go to the Mayo clinic in the US, which has an effective smoke-cessation program. But it seems he’s never got down to it.

It’s sad, even scandalous, for the well-off to be unable, or unwilling to stop a vice that would kill them in the most horrible way. Most poor smokers have been addicted and will continue to be addicted because a smoke does relieve hunger. “It’s cheaper than a Ligo (sardines),” a day laborer once told me.

It’s astonishing how cigarette addiction can make one so irrational. Another close friend of mine from way back smoked so much that he developed emphysema, also caused by cigarette smoking in which the lungs slowly become, well, useless. He was very smart, had a loving wife and children, and was a successful corporate executive. Yet even as his emphysema required him to have a portable oxygen tank by his side always, he would sneak into his bathroom for a smoke. He died at 50.

What can make you stop smoking? Time. You just have to wait for the receptors in your brain to stop craving for nicotine. It is the same for any addiction: you just have to suffer the withdrawal pangs, the craving for just one more shot or one more puff, and wait for the storm to subside and eventually disappear.

Realize and understand in your heart and mind that it is an addiction and that the cancer, lung or heart diseases it will cause will make a hell out of your life. Refuse the temptation of “just one more won’t hurt,” and wait till the addiction disappears.

For me, the first five days was hell, but after that the thought that my suffering would be just wasted if I smoked just another cigarette—which would lead to a pack, and then two packs—helped me get by one day after another, until a month later, I was free.