I know it's stupid. So why can't I stop smoking?

As a 41-year-old mother of two, I almost weep at the thought that I may die horribly as they watch
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The Independent Online

What props has the British Heart Foundation used in putting together the poster for its first anti-smoking advertising campaign? The picture purports to show an artery, its walls peeled away to reveal an alarming fatty build-up inside. Maybe this really is a picture of a dead smoker's flayed artery. But to millions of smokers in denial, it can all too easily be dismissed as a picture of a cheap sausage wrapped in a sheet of red wax.

The statistics which support the horrid, yet entirely unconvincing sausage picture are not, of course, so easy to write off. Smokers are twice as likely as non-smokers to have a heart attack, and of the 114,000 people who are killed each year by the habit, 30,000 die from heart disease. And so on.

Some smokers find such figures as easy to dismiss as the sausage picture. They are used to blocking out the evidence of their habit's deadliness, and sorely resent being constantly lectured to. In many others, the scary numbers promote a high degree of anxiety and distress, and a huge amount of guilt and panic. In quite a lot of them, such feelings prompt the desire for a soothing cigarette.

Well, I say "them", but really, since my vague idea that I might give up smoking on New Year's Day, 2004, has already disappeared in several puffs of smoke, I ought to say "us". Which isn't easy. I am ashamed to admit that I smoke, and I hate myself for it. The brief periods in which I've given up, have been quite happy, fulfilling months for me. But I just can't seem to recapture them, no matter how much anti-smoking propaganda is thrown my way.

Which is particularly odd, because on those occasions when I have been able to curb my habit for a period of time, the great revelation (until the point when the recidivist fag is lit) has been how easy it is to stop smoking.

All you have to do is get into the right mindset, stop feeling you're denying yourself something fabulous, and start celebrating the truth - that it is by not smoking that you pamper and reward yourself. And keep it up for ever.

This sounds simple. But it is not. One smoker that I know summed it up by saying that he couldn't bear the thought of stopping, because he didn't feel he could face life without "a fiery treat every 20 minutes or so". I so identify with this remark that I have to confess that sometimes it's the lovely thought of the fiery treat awaiting that propels me out of bed in the morning.

A few months ago, I had hypnosis to help me quit smoking. Despite the fact that the hypnotist came very highly recommended, and has undoubtedly intervened successfully to stop many many people from continuing to smoke, it didn't work for me at all.

The exercise went wrong from the very start, when the hypnotist told me that she practised all sorts of other complementary therapies and was also, for example, a healer. Immediately, and cynically, it occurred to me that I could just wait until the hideous diseases struck, and get her to sort me out then. This was an indication from the off, that I was not going to be able to suspend my disbelief in her abilities, and sure enough, I couldn't.

Even when I was supposedly in a trance, I found everything she said to be obvious and banal. She told me of the benefits awaiting me to my health, appearance, fitness and finances. She told me nothing I didn't know already. There are hundreds of reasons for stopping smoking, and none at all for continuing to smoke tobacco. But still I continue. It's pathetic. I lit up immediately after I got out of the first session, and even after the third I was only able to cut down my smoking rather than stop, and only for a couple of weeks.

All this is despite the fact that fears about what I am destroying with my habit, bring me close to despair almost daily.

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.

I am disgusted too by the fact that by smoking around them (though we only have one designated smoking room in the house), I am teaching them to smoke as well.

Even my six-year-old understands completely that his mother's smoking is unacceptable. After I last began smoking again, I promised him that I would give up once more, very soon.

He, then only five, made the most penetrating comment about the situation. "First you smoke, then you don't smoke, then you smoke, then you don't smoke. Is that going to be the pattern then, eh?"

Not that I let the precocious little monster win. Since he shared his insight, I've been unable to stop smoking again, despite the hypnotherapy (three times), the acupuncture (twice), the application of many patches (ripped off within hours of application), and the reading of yet more smoking-cessation self-help manuals. So, hah! No! That isn't going to be the pattern then, eh?

Worse, my son made a gender distinction between myself and my husband, in his comments about our return to smoking. My husband had stopped for a year, and then began smoking a pipe in the self-deluding belief that pipe-smoking isn't bad for you because it's less likely to give you lung cancer.

This move was greeted by the same child with a note of actual wonder. "Dad," he said, face shining. "I didn't know you had a pipe like Gandalf's."

The purported gender division in smoking is, by the way, an interesting one. The generally popular idea is that women have more of a problem now with smoking than men, although actually, slightly more men still smoke than women.

Interestingly, women bear the brunt of the high-profile criticism though, with the cigarette smoking of Kate Moss or Charlotte Church highlighted a great deal more than that of any male celebrity. In fact, it's not even easy to think of a male celebrity who is also held up as a notorious smoker.

All this really tells us is what we know already - that women are expected to be less destructive of themselves and of others than men, and that in the event that they display such behaviour, they are pilloried more for it.

If there is any truth in the received wisdom which says that more young women are taking up smoking than men nowadays, then, perversely, this is probably the psychological factor which is causing it. The added opprobrium heaped on smoking women actually may work to entrench for young people the idea of lighting up as part of a rebellious female identity.

Is there a point at which anti-smoking advice becomes counter-productive? Maybe so, because, let's face it, smokers are by definition self-destructive idiots, and banging on about how self destructive and idiotic it is can only be appealing to some.

Yet what else can be done? The most idiotic of all smokers are those who militantly insist that the "anti-smoking lobby" is encroaching upon their human rights.

I note that John Mortimer, an admirable man in many ways, has shared his New Year's resolution with the media. His resolution is "to survive, and to campaign for the rights of smokers."

This is a contradiction in terms, if ever there was one, even if the old boy has made it to 80. As far as I'm concerned, do-badders such as he, can take their own advice, and mind their own business.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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