Taking up smoking was one of the worst decisions I never made, writes Anna Rawhiti-Connell, welcoming a new cigarette ban.
There are substance-experience moments that seem to remain burned in people’s brains. The time you snuck a couple of beers into your pack for school camp only to bring them home again and get sprung. The time you decided to try legal party pills and spent the night trying to poke your eyeballs back into your skull. The first time you got properly, illegally high.
I can not, however, pinpoint the moment that I decided to start smoking cigarettes because I don’t believe I ever did. It just happened. I was 18-ish and had smoked socially at parties. I don’t remember buying my first packet but at some point, I morphed into the person who would always let you bum a smoke. I liked that about myself at the time but an affectation soon became a habit and a full blown addiction.
The accidental nature of how I became a smoker is one of the strongest reasons I support the latest announcement from the government to gradually increase the legal age at which someone can buy cigarettes and to regulate where you can buy them from. Had it not been for the ease at which I could buy cigarettes from any dairy, service station or supermarket, I doubt I would’ve bothered to continue the slide from smoking at parties to smoking first thing every morning for nearly 20 years.
I moved out of home to go to university, and the intoxicating freedom of being able to buy and smoke cigarettes whenever I liked, without my parents smelling them on me and getting rightfully upset, was part of the appeal. I was defining myself as an adult.
I always thought I could stop whenever I liked, my young brain coated with a thick tar of invincibility. I assumed I would not succumb to one of the most addictive drugs on the planet, nor the illness that still prematurely ends the lives of 13 New Zealanders every day.
As time went on, after the initial stumble into being a smoker, I was also convinced that I was choosing to do it and was not “an addict”. I was most definitely not the hapless victim of an intricate and decades-long manipulation by tobacco companies to associate being a grown-up, desirably slim and emancipated woman with smoking cigarettes. Tobacco companies started this particular drive in the 1920s, marketing cigarettes to women as “torches of freedom”. The president of American Tobacco at the time, described the realisation that women were an as-yet-untapped market as being like “opening a new gold mine right in our front yard”.
I tried to give up many times. Technically, nicotine leaves the body 72 hours after quitting. The first week is often physically hard but mentally the easiest. Resolve can be a powerful force… for a while. It was after that though – when smoking revealed itself not only as a physical addiction but a habitual crutch – that things got tough. One stressful moment or night out and my house of cards, carefully constructed out of 99 very good reasons to stop smoking, toppled quickly. It pushed me to the nearest ciggie retailer which was always a short walk or an even shorter drive from wherever I happened to be. There are smoking cessation aids that help you break the addiction to nicotine but the habit is harder to break (and yet, easily supplied).
It really, truly ought to be completely fine, logical and celebrated for the government to ban the sale and smoking of cigarettes outright. Yet they have taken a compassionate, measured and innovative approach instead. This product, which has no net good, persists because we’ve allowed large profit-hungry companies, who do nothing but produce highly-addictive nicotine consumables, to hook people on them young and make it as easy as possible to buy them. We should never have granted tobacco companies the licence to dupe us for as long as they have.
And yet some say this “ban” is an attack on our individual freedoms, on our rights to choose what we put in our bodies. That implies we had full freedom of choice about this readily available carcinogen in the first place. That we were never manipulated into associating smoking with the construction of a desirable image and certain identity. That the tobacco companies weren’t knowledgeable about how addictive cigarettes were and how hard they were to quit. That there hasn’t been billions of dollars spent on making sure we tolerate how readily available cigarettes are and how ready the industry is to catch anyone on the slide from casual smoker to addict.
I still say I am a smoker, though I don’t smoke any more. Constant vigilance is crucial. I was eventually, and I like to think quite finally, pushed to cessation through a combination of not being able to justify it financially, my health concerns, and dwindling social acceptability.
There are some concerns that what the government has proposed will make cigarettes more illicit and more desirable again. That the falling stock of social acceptability will be rebuilt off the back of some imagined prohibition-era fantasy and black market chic. But even when I was enthralled with smoking, it was never something I’d describe as a good time or an experience I sought out, in the same way people might pursue a great night out or a mind-altering time at a festival. It was a physical addiction, a habitual crutch and a prop I used to create some idea of myself.
Smoking is a pernicious habit. Very few people wake up and decide to become a smoker, nip down the dairy, buy a pack and smoke the lot that day. It creeps, then locks you in a vice grip – physical addiction and habit applying force from both sides. And up until this announcement, it’s been an easy habit to feed and maintain.
The government’s plan is designed to prevent exactly what happened to me from happening to the next generation. They are moving future generations out of harm’s way by slamming the brakes on the easy ride tobacco industries have had in providing access to cigarettes for people at the ages when they are most susceptible to influence. It is not a blow to your freedoms, it is a strike against an industry that turned a humble leaf into a mass-marketed commercial product that kills, and sold it to you with your milk.