If anyone still thinks it is easy to give up smoking, they need only look at the next US president
If evidence were still required of the addictive nature of tobacco, one need only look at the case of the president-elect of the United States. For Barack Obama, who was pictured in yesterday's papers as a college student sucking jauntily on a cigarette, has still not managed to kick the habit nearly 20 years later, despite the fact that some opinion polls found his smoking a greater obstacle to his election than the colour of his skin.
Obama appears to have tried really hard to stop, and says he has cut his smoking down to the occasional fag bummed from a member of his staff; but he still hasn't given up completely, despite being a fitness fanatic who spends more than an hour a day in the gym. In this he is not alone. It is not uncommon for people to strive to be healthy (working out, gulping vitamin pills, eating only organic vegetables) while persisting with the habit that does them the most harm of all. They seem to hope that their other efforts will somehow neutralise its ill effects.
Obama has committed himself to giving up properly when he goes to the White House, where smoking has been banned since the days of Nancy Reagan. But everyone knows how easily such promises are broken, and I wonder what penalty will be inflicted on the president if he is caught furtively breaking the rule?
Cigarettes could yet be Obama's undoing.
In Britain, health warnings and bans in public places have undoubtedly had an effect, and the Department of Health claims that 350,000 people gave up smoking last year as a result of such initiatives. But there are many who obdurately continue to smoke and, according to the DoH, smoking still kills some 87,000 people a year in England alone. Rather like the Bank of England with its measures to stimulate the economy, the government seems to be running out of weapons in its war on the weed.
Its latest step has been to put graphic images on cigarette packets to show what smoking can do to you. Not all of these are alarming. One warns that "smoking can damage the sperm" with rather a charming illustration of what look like tadpoles. But even the shockers - such as the pictures of a red, bulging tumour on a man's neck and of brown and yellow diseased lungs - may not put everyone off.
For there is a view, hotly debated this week on the letters page of the New York Times, that such warning labels only increase people's craving to smoke. One correspondent put this down to the fact that humans are the only
animals who know that they are bound one day to die and that "there is something fundamental to the human spirit that is infuriated by this".
"If the world will kill us no matter what we do, why not assume God-like powers and claim a role in the process?" he wrote. "I have long thought that one of the explanations for many types of self-destructive behaviour is this basic need to play a direct part in our tragic fate. There is a sad nobility in this."
I would like to associate my own cigarette habit with such "sad nobility", but I really don't think I can. I have no urge to contribute to my own death: my smoking is just a wretched addiction. You may nevertheless recall that a cigarette called "Death" - in a packet illustrated with a skull and crossbones - enjoyed brief success in the 90s. Promoting itself as "the honest smoke", it gained such a foothold in the market that the tobacco industry ganged up to suppress it. This suggests that the critics of the current shock images on cigarette packets may have a point.
It was once suggested during the presidential campaign that Obama should be more open about his smoking so as to win the support of working-class voters who saw him as snooty and elitist. But that would have lost him only the votes of a much larger part of the population that despises the habit - a part to which Obama himself appears to belong. The most striking thing about it all is that a man as calm, controlled and disciplined as the next president should have so far failed in his efforts to set himself free. At least I can take comfort from the fact that I am in the most distinguished company. But I also intend to join him in his New Year resolution to stop smoking, mainly in my case because it's just too expensive.
The question is how to do it. Past experience tells me that bans and health warnings have little effect. Even nicotine patches or chewing gum are of only partial assistance. The only sure way is just to make the decision and stick to it. Nothing else - not even the millions spent by governments on threats and exhortations - is of much help.
# Alexander Chancellor
# The Guardian
# December 19, 2008
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