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February 19, 2020

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My personal history with smoking bears some similarities with the current environmental debate.

I started young, when it was the cool and adult thing to do, and smokes were cheap. By the time I was in the early stages of being addicted, it was just easier to go along with it, even though there were rogue doctors warning about the health impacts.

Then the news was more and more of the link between cigarettes and lung cancer. And emphysema. Still, it was a bit controversial as there were doctors and scientists who disputed the link. There was – and still it is the case, as far as I know – no scientifically proven, causal link between cigarettes and cancer: why does smoking cigarettes result in cancers? It was all statistical.

So it was easy to push the risks to the back of my mind. And giving the smokes up was a very, very difficult thing to do. Finally, there were always the young-man’s rationalisations of last resort: what’s wrong with living a little dangerously, who wants to live forever and it won’t happen to me anyway.

It became more difficult to ignore after I was married and I was looking fatherthood in the eye. The whole passive smoking thing was beginning to emerge as an issue – banning smoking for bars! – and I was going to have dependents, so it became more imperative to do something about it.

Lots of attempts with varying degrees of success and failure, but I am glad I started kicking it when I was 24. Since, I have been an intermittent smoker – cigars, a packet when I go north, etc. In my 30s, though I couldn’t deny I felt better when I was off them, it was sometimes easier to just have a few. The ads had said that the body starts recovering as soon as I stopped, so I took the risk.

A couple of years back, smoking hurt my lungs immediately. Finally, there was an instant feedback from the body: pain is a great motivator! Now, it is easier to say No, though still not easy.

The benefits are multiple, some unexpected: so much money saved; breath doesn’t stink like an ashtray so others appreciate that a bit; don’t have to brave the cold and wet when I want a smoke in winter, no longer driven by the cravings, and I am still here. I haven’t avoided all the negatives: I use puffers for my breathing these days, a constant cough and I still hanker for them. Plus, I may yet develop a cancer related to smoking.

What has this to do the environment?

– Gradual transition of awareness and acceptance of the impacts of the activity

– Slow changes to social behaviour as the impacts became more accepted as real

– Fierce debates over the science

– Slow, difficult process in need of high motivation

– Entrenched vested interests mounting fierce opposition

– Backlash from smokers (mostly) faced with demands on them to make changes

– Costs of changes

A big difference is that there was no social deadline with the smoking. Sure, it would probably kill individuals over time, not to mention all the butts poisoning the waterways, but society as a whole wasn’t threatened. With the environment, there is a visible endpoint if no action or insufficient action is taken.