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Smokers are not criminals

by Jackie

I was born in the 70s, when Singapore was still a growing country. My parents are hardworking honest people who had to work more than 12 hours a day to feed our family of 6. Growing up, I was often left alone with my siblings and though we took care of each other, we had to grow up by ourselves as well. Our parents did not neglect us intentionally, but like many of the families of the 70s, putting food on the table is hard and is a top priority. This means that many of us did not have much parental supervision.

Some of us was lucky, studied hard and had good friends and teachers to guide them through life, while some of us weren’t so lucky. I was one of those who had it mixed. My siblings (I am the youngest) really took good care of me, but I too fell into some bad influences. In my secondary school days, my mix of friends was like me, curious, experimental and eager to try new stuff and act like adults. I thank my stars I did not fall to even more sinister influences. One of the vices I picked up during my teens was smoking. It started off innocently enough, we were a group of boys and girls and we pooled our money to buy a packet of cigarettes. We all took one. I think the girls were more curious than us guys, and we guys were just out to impress the girls.

Smoking back then was fashionable, in our view; we’d impress our peers and act cool. It wasn’t a social discrimination back then. Our parents didn’t know of course, I am not sure what would have happened if they did, though they were smokers themselves. But socially it was not a stigma back then. There was not much advertising about the harms of smoking and a lot of people were smoking then. These included professionals, teachers, people we called role models.

Fast forward to present day, I have been a smoker for 30 odd years. I have kept relatively healthy but I still a bit of effects of the cigarettes on my lungs whenever I go and exercise which I do 5 to 6 times a week. I do not doubt nor dispute that cigarettes harms our health and the environment. I also do not blame the non smokers for not wanting or liking my smoking habits. I have gone through a short phase when I was not smoking for a day and the smoke smelt really bad. I truly do understand their concerns and dislike. I can appreciate how smoking has now become a social stigmata and discrimination.

When I smoke now, I have to hide. I don’t like the accusatory looks a person gives me. When I am on a walkway, I have to give way to others, knowing that if they smell the smoke on me, they will make a rude gesture like turning their head way or pinching their nose. While I do not blame them for their views on smoking, I cannot accept their behavior. Discriminating against a fellow human being is worse than the smoking habit. Showing your disdain at a smoker is a retaliatory action. As a smoker, I have the grace, the public consciousness to avoid non smokers, but the non smokers seems to forget that I too am a human and that I actually have feelings. I do not see them as ‘more right’ than I am. I am smoking, while these people are discriminating. Which is the more serious crime?

The smoking stigma has now gone further with governmental measures aimed at curbing smoking. I recall a fellow smoker who had a smoke with me once, and told me his teenage son just started smoking and how sad he was. While recounting the tale, the fellow smoker had tears in his eyes. He felt that he had a part to play in his son’s picking up of the smoking habit. I sympathize with him and this is why I am supportive of curbing smoking. It is an addiction that can bring harm to oneself and family. The health and social consequences are real and thus smoking should be discouraged.

However, I think that for many people who has never smoked, they do not realize that this is both a chemical and habitual addiction akin to alcoholics and drug usage.

What non smokers do not realize is why do most smokers persist in their habits? Why is it that most smokers seem to smoke for more than a couple of decades (depending on their age). I believe that almost none of us were addicts. Most people do not know that smoking is a drug addiction that goes beyond the body. It is also a mental and habitual addiction. One of the feelings I have when I do not smoke, is feeling lost and not having something to do. If it was easy to break an addiction, many hard core drug users would have done so. Sure, a lot of people have managed to break their addiction, but a far many has not.

What is required is a shift in views on curbing smoking. Banning smoking in our own homes, putting up CCD cameras at public places to detect smokers is retaliatory and seeks to punish. It does no good to help smokers quit smoking. It does nothing to stop our young from picking up that 1st cigarette. By issuing summons and fines, does that reduce my addiction? If anything, I suspect it increases it, now that I have fewer chances to smoke,

I’d just smoke more when I can.

We can also argue that the current acts of curbing smoking is a protectionist measure and seeks to protect the wider non smoking public from the harmful effects of 2nd hand smoke and also prevents the younger generation from picking up smoking. While the wider population may be protected, the smokers will be left in the dust, literally thrown under the bus. Again, the idea of using monitoring and punishment does not chemically help smokers to quit. It does provide a dis-incentive to smoke but people reacts differently to such forced behavior. Nextly, it can also be that the younger generation is more inquisitive about taboo matters and since smoking has almost become an offence, it may entice them to give it a try.

Rather, the current education attempts to educate the younglings on the harms of smoking is much more useful and effective. We should be dedicating our efforts towards this direction.

More public education and activities needs to be formed and directed at the right places to discourage our young from picking up the habit. Increasing the prices of cigarettes is a good way, though the extra income that has been brought in should be directed toward forming youth teams to hold healthy activities that discourage smoking. Football and basketball camps etc are some examples of activities that can be used to discourage our youths from smoking. Banning and fining them will not. Teenagers tend to be aggressive and curious. The more you ban and fine, the more it becomes of a challenge to them to try.

More actual help should be given to the older smokers like me to quit smoking. Clinics that can be allowed to use some form of chemical or mental therapy etc should be made economically assessable. Incentives should be rewarded to smokers who can successfully quit smoking and become ambassadors to other smokers to quit. Such assistance-oriented plans will be more effective than plans that seek to punish smokers. Most of the older smokers such as me know and want to quit. We cannot because we do not feel ready and worse, we feel scared to give up. It is not something that non smokers can understand. A committee to handle smoking reduction should be formed to look at ways to assist both young and old smokers to give up the habit. Such committee should be made up of both smokers past and present as well as non smokers.

For the young, we should educate and re-educate, while for the current smokers, we should seek to assist them to quit and not seek to punish them and throw them under the bus.

I am a smoker of 30 odd years. I work hard and feed my family. I take care of my parents and I have served my country. I do not steal, I do not rob. I do not break the law. I am not a criminal. I am an ordinary human being and a true bred Singaporean citizen that has feelings and I need help too. But I am not a bad person and I do not deserve to be ostracized, punished and discriminated.