How I learnt to give up smoking

It's easy to stop smoking. What's hard is persuading yourself of the essential truth of that phrase
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The Independent Online

On New Year's Day last year, my umpteenth attempt to give up cigarettes collapsed after a couple of hours and I filed an article to this newspaper describing how impossible I found it to stop

On New Year's Day last year, my umpteenth attempt to give up cigarettes collapsed after a couple of hours and I filed an article to this newspaper describing how impossible I found it to stop

The day after that, at some point, I smoked my last, unmemorable, gasper and began a whole, fresh, new life as a former smoker who couldn't quite grasp what the whole 25-year desperate, mad, bonkers, nicotine thing had been all about.

As advice on giving up smoking goes, my own is fairly specialised: publish what you fondly imagine is an honest account of your heartfelt self-loathing in a national newspaper, then sit back as hundreds of people write to you with tips, advice, referrals, and, most usefully of all, contemptuous diatribes about the ghastliness of public displays of self-serving and hypocritical self-pity.

What really got certain readers angry was my admission that "as a 41-year-old mother of two small children, I almost weep at the thought that I may die horribly as they watch, while they are still not grown up."

All those who had suffered a dose of the reality behind such self-deluding claptrap - from the man who as a boy begged his dad to give up then later held a bowl to his mouth as he spat up blood, to the woman who housed and nursed a bed-bound mother who continued, to the horror and repulsion of her family by her deathbed, to chain-smoke around her grandchildren - were clear that all you had to do to stop smoking was stop smoking.

The anger they still felt at the parents who had put the feeding of their own pointless addiction first, last and always, and who had subjected their own children to unspeakable horror in doing so, rose off the page and radiated off the computer screen.

It is common for loved ones to feel anger at suicides. But the anger felt by the children of people who had died of smoking-related diseases had continued to fester for many years, partly - I think - because smoking, along with other addictions and obsessive-compulsive behaviours, is one of the most insidious, protracted, and imposing-on-others kind of suicides that a person can undertake.

This year's seasonal anti-smoking campaign aims to exploit the idea that even self-destructive people, who find it hard to motivate themselves to kick a damaging habit, may be able to do so for the sake of their children. "We know that 70 per cent of smokers want to stop smoking," says the public health minister Melanie Johnson. "For some, however, fears about their children can be a stronger motivation to actually quit than fears for their own health."

This hunch is played out in a series of television advertisements with harrowing scenes which include a mother trying to comfort her son at his father's burial, a woman smoker struggling to tell her children that she has cancer and a girl laying flowers on her father's grave.

Each emphasises that the parents in question erroneously believed they were shielding their children in some way from their smoking - by going outside to smoke perhaps, or by keeping it secret from their children altogether (which a surprising number of adults do). These adverts will be followed up with another series which will feature people who have been helped to give up by using the NHS's stop smoking services.

It's a notable strategy, because although £6m is being spent on it, the campaign doesn't target all smokers, not by any means. Those who don't have children will simply be able to dismiss these efforts as irrelevant to them, as smokers so often do. Even among those who do, many are probably already aware that dying before their children are grown up is one of the risks that they are taking.

There will be some, though, for whom the drama strikes a chord - although whether this approach will be more or less successful than more visceral appeals remains to be seen.

This time last year, as I tapped away on the history of my own heroic, yet futile, battle with the weed, I was even able to suggest that last year's public health campaign, devised by the British Heart Foundation, could be "all too easily dismissed as a picture of a cheap sausage wrapped in a sheet of red wax".

In fact, once you were in the right frame of mind, the billboard adverts depicting the build-up of fatty deposits in a smoker's artery were immensely effective at offering constant, graphic aides-mémoires to What It Was All For.

The British Heart Foundation campaign's brilliance lay in the fact that it illustrated a symptom of the ill-health caused by smoking that few people really grasped. It provided a new - or at least newly visual - health fear to obsess about. This time, the adverts will only be effective if you are already in a cycle of guilt and worry about your own health and how it will impact on your children's future.

Even so, it may turn out to have been worth doing - since the children of smokers, even though they swear they never will, are much more likely to take up smoking as adults.

What this campaign lacks in universality, it may gain in intergenerational pertinence. In other words, it could prove deeper than it is wide; reaching young people by changing the habits of their parents rather than trying to appeal directly to them in the face of their youthful feelings of immortality.

Incidently, in all my attempts to give up smoking (even last year's pathetic initial effort), I'd never made a serious attempt to give up at New Year. This was, at least in part, due to the same character defects as those which had made me smoke: I wasn't a joiner, I wanted to be different, I wanted to rebel. This is the sort of childish and crude psychology that makes many smokers take up the habit and which keeps them smoking.

Once I'd adjusted my attitude, however, and discovered that I had failed again and again to stop smoking simply because part of me did not accept that it was essential to my life and my future, I discovered that in fact giving up as part of a mass effort was absolutely the right thing to do.

Not only were the British Heart Foundation adverts around everywhere. There were also adverts from private companies selling gum, books, hypnotherapy and all manner of other props. Giving up at New Year means that you are surrounded by reminders that what you are doing is right - and it really helps.

The other thing that helps is acceptance that giving up is permanent. Before, I'd always secretly planned to emerge from a period of purdah as a social smoker, bingeing at parties or treating myself to the occasional holiday smoke. For me - and for most smokers - this isn't an option. But, surprisingly, once you embrace this simple fact, all the resentment that makes it hard to stop obsessing about fags disappears. It is easy to stop smoking. What is hard is persuading yourself of the essential truth of that phrase.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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