When I was in Grade 10, my high school organized a day trip to the Stratford Festival. School buses shuttled us to Toronto's Union Station, where we boarded the train for Stratford. Sitting with my three best friends, far away from my Scarborough home, I felt completely grown up and independent. When the train had safely pulled out of the station, one of the girls produced a pack of cigarettes that she'd borrowed from her mother. Naturally, I lit up.
The very first drag made my head spin. The second made me want to throw up. I watched as my friends had similar reactions, and yet we persevered. By the time we got to Stratford, we had managed to make it halfway through the pack. The dizziness had been replaced by a foul taste in my mouth and a burning in my stomach, but it didn't matter. The boys in the seats in front of us had started to take notice of our otherwise conservative little group. Smoking had made us cool, and we weren't about to give that up.
It was several months before I tried smoking again. This time it was at a school dance. The reaction was a little less severe, and with the encouragement of my friends, I was soon joining them outside at lunch everyday for a quick smoke. My parents, both anti-smokers, had begun to notice the undeniable stench of tobacco on my clothes, and yet I was in denial. They all knew that most of friends had parents who smoked, so I blamed it on them. By the time I graduated from high school, I was hooked.
The terrible thing about a cigarette addiction is that it is easily fed. Thirty years ago when I first became a tobacco junkie, a large pack of cigarettes cost less than a dollar. Cigarettes could be purchased anywhere, by virtually anyone, and you could smoke anywhere you wanted - movie theatres, airplanes, even the grocery store. My mother once joked that I couldn't even drive a car without a cigarette in my hand.
She was right. Smoking became an integral part of just about every activity in my life - driving, talking on the phone, working, watching a movie, enjoying a meal, a good book or a friendly conversation.
For a dozen long years I was addicted to nicotine. I used to joke that is was easy to quit smoking. I had done it hundreds of times. Every night before I went to bed I would vow that the cigarette that I extinguished as I turned out the light would be my last. Every New Year's Eve, every birthday, every Sunday, every holiday, was marked as another occasion to take the pledge. Sometimes my promise would last several weeks or even months, but invariably if I lit just one cigarette, I would be back to my pack and a half a day habit. I would play games with myself, promising special treats if I managed to go just one day without a cigarette. The Catch-22 was that the one special treat that I wanted more than anything else was a cigarette.
We've come a long way since then. Tobacco has finally been recognized for the environmental poison that it is. Each cigarette contains 4,000 chemicals and poisons, and 50 known cancer-causing substances. Thanks to public smoking bans, an individual's right to smoke has been replaced by the public's right to clean air.
Sadly, smoking is still the leading cause of preventable illness, disability and death. One in two lifetime smokers will die from their habit. Half of these deaths will occur in middle age. According to the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission (AADAC), over 47,000 Canadians die each year from smoking. The AADAC also reports that smoking is the cause of one-fifth of all deaths from cancer, heart disease and stroke.
I was one of the lucky ones. Before I became pregnant with our first child, my husband and I made a pact to quit smoking. Knowingly polluting our bodies was one thing; damaging our unborn child was another. I find it ironic that in giving life to my son, he gave me mine back.
Nicotine is more addictive than heroin. I believe that cigarettes should be illegal and inaccessible. Until then, if you don't smoke, don't start. If you have children, do whatever you can to prevent them from starting. Their lives depend on it.
January 15 to 21, 2006, is National Non-Smoking Week in Canada. For more information, visit: