Smoke gets in your eyes, 31/03/10

Despite all the evidence out there, people are still smoking.

IN THE 1940s, smoking cigarettes was socially acceptable – even considered cool, if you believe some of the ads from way back then. For example, one ad for Camel cigarettes read: “More doctors smoke CAMELS than any other cigarette!” Accompanying the claim was a picture of a handsome doctor (you can tell he’s a doctor because he’s wearing a white coat) holding a cigarette in his hand. The message? Beautiful, intelligent, successful people are smoking Camels, so why aren’t you?

Moreover, if your doctor smokes Camels, they can’t possibly be bad for you. I mean to say, this is the guy responsible for your health. And if he thinks a Camel is better than, say, a Marlboro, who can argue with that? A couple of Camels a day might even help that hacking cough you’ve had for a while, the one that causes you to bring up blood and pieces of lung tissue.

Even if such ads were still allowed today, no doctor would endorse such a product, simply because we all know better now. Seventy years later, we all know that smoking cigarettes is bad for your health. We all know that stinking hair, and nicotine-stained teeth and fingers are neither sexy nor as cool as some would have you think. We all know that most doctors don’t look like movie stars.

I started smoking when I was 15. And no, I didn’t smoke Camels. I smoked a brand called Player’s. There was no sexy advertising, not that I can remember, but it was the cigarette that my father smoked – or at least one of them.

My father smoked three packets of cigarettes a day: two packets that guaranteed that his lungs were perpetually clogged with tar, and a packet of menthols. The menthols were for his health.

You see, way back then, we were slowly becoming aware that smoking could cause all sorts of nasty cancers, but most people chose to ignore the warnings.

My father did know better, but those menthols cigarettes were supposed to cancel out the ill-effects of the other cigarettes.

He didn’t know it at the time, but those menthol cigarettes were just as harmful as any other cigarette around. Still, that soothing menthol flavour had him fooled.

Even when he was diagnosed with lung cancer, he continued to smoke his menthol cigarettes. He would spend half an hour every morning coughing violently in an attempt to clear his lungs, followed by several menthols with his cup of coffee.

I didn’t start smoking because of my father’s influence. If anything, his habit disgusted me. During the winter months, when all the windows and doors in my house were firmly closed against the elements, the living room was often full of smoke, the result of one man and his 60 cigarettes. And even when he wasn’t at home, that room reeked of stale nicotine.

Every spring, my father would open the windows, don a pair of overalls, and paint the living room walls. I often watched as he applied the virgin white paint, which seemed all the whiter against the yellowing walls.

It probably never occurred to him that the inside of his lungs had suffered a much worse fate. And it certainly never crossed my mind that I would be yellowing walls of my own in years to come.

Long before my father’s cancer was diagnosed, peer pressure induced me to smoke for the first time. I’d just moved to a new school, where two of the most popular girls in my year had befriended me.

I was so grateful for the friendship and eager to be accepted, so when they offered me a cigarette one day after class, I accepted without even thinking about the consequences. The first inhalation almost caused me to throw up, but I persevered.

I smoked for almost 15 years before deciding to give it up. But to this day, I regret that first puff.

Despite all the evidence out there, people are still smoking. And it’s not just middle-aged people, people who didn’t know any better way back then, who are indulging. A lot of young people are taking up the habit. Like what the heck do we have to tell them about cigarettes to stop them from starting in the first place? Of course it doesn’t help that Malaysia has been dubbed the “indirect advertising capital” of the world.

Seventy years from now, we might look back on the indirect advertising campaigns that promote cigarettes today and find them equally as insidious as the Camel ad of the 1940s.

I sure hope so.

Leave a Comment