June 6, 2000 Halifax Herald

Add compassion to anti-smoking crusade

Historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony said of former American First Lady Betty Ford: "She transformed the political landscape by demonstrating that you don't lose strength or dignity by admitting that you're human and have all the attributes and deficiencies that go with it." In the late 1970s, Ford acknowledged publicly that she was addicted to alcohol and drugs and then found the courage to overcome both. Since then she has devoted her life to helping other addicts surmount their addiction problems.

In line with her outlook on life, I keep a copy of this Indian prayer hanging on my wall as a reminder of my own human frailties: "Great Spirit, grant that I may not criticize my neighbour until I have walked a mile in his moccasins."

Although during my earlier years, I sometimes overindulged in alcohol consumption, I was never addicted to it, or to prescription or non-prescription, hard drugs. This, however, does not give me a licence to have no compassion for those who were and are. The withdrawal demons and nightmares experienced by these people, or to be experienced by the newly initiated, are horrendous. The reason I can state this is because of the hell I had to go through to get the upper hand over my addiction to the most and worst addictive drug known to man - nicotine.

In sharing with others the long-term hell and trauma I went through to put my addiction on hold, I wrote a column on July 15, 1994, describing them. The following is a short excerpt:

"May 15, 1994, marked the fourth year since I quit smoking. This has been accomplished in the face of the fact that the addictive hold nicotine had over me was to the tune of three and a half large packs per day. This translates into 90 cigarettes per day, or 32,850 a year. Because of this, when I announced my intention to quit, family, friends and co-workers, knowing the size of my addiction, reacted with scepticism. And, to be candid, with the acute and constant withdrawal symptoms I was experiencing during the first two years, I almost caved in on several occasions.

“However, with the passage of four years, I now have enough confidence in my will-power to say that in all probability, I will never smoke again. I qualify the statement somewhat because if I were to have just one cigarette, the horror of being hooked again would be mine. And it would be for the rest of my life. This would stand even if I were told by my doctor that continuing would be a death sentence. I went through the same hell twice (quit before when I was 19) and to do it again is unthinkable."

An addict is never cured; it’s a matter of having the willpower not to indulge again.

The reason for revisiting the past and discussing my case is to establish a basis to comment about the lack of compassion and common sense being displayed today by many politicians, and by many of the public at large, in dealing constructively with the nicotine addiction problem. Many approach it as if it were a matter of an individual waking one morning and saying "I quit," and never having to suffer any traumatic withdrawal ordeal. There are a few individuals who can do that, but they are few and far between. For most nicotine addicts, withdrawal is hell; only the insensitive can promote dealing with it without compassion.

Believing, as they do, that dealing with a personal alcohol or substance addiction problem is so easy, how come so many of the "nicotine police" are addicted to non-addictive food and are overweight - ranging from mild to extreme? Their personal shortcomings in this regard are so bad that many will be clogging hospitals wards in future years with problems stemming from their long-term obesity, in far greater numbers than smokers. Since food is not an addictive drug, it stands to reason that they should be able to reduce themselves to a healthy weight with no problem and, thereafter, exercise with vigour to prevent health problems associated with consuming unhealthy food from draining the public health budget. But, no matter the cost to their health to them, or to the taxpayer, they won't quit because they're addicted!

The hard-nosed, no-smoking hospital policy that the nicotine police promote - which denies the hospitalized, including the terminally ill, their nicotine fix - is extremely cruel. Passing hospitals and seeing smoking patients standing outside in the harsh elements in their nightclothes makes one wonder where in the name of God has our sense of compassion gone. Surely, a room could be set aside inside these institutions, with good exhaust fans, to accommodate these poor souls without subjecting them to such humiliation. Further, there are cases of people in critical need of hospital care who are refusing it because they cannot abide not having their nicotine fix.

I fully agree that smokers should be encouraged to quit, or better, people should be encouraged never to start. To this end, let’s go into schools and show children in the early grades what smoking can do to them. Waiting until they are addicted before acting is not the way to go.

A closing word of advice to people in prison administration: Use compassion and assure that nicotine-addicted prisoners have the means to satisfy their nicotine cravings. To do otherwise is subjecting them to cruel and unusual punishment. Mental torture is as bad as, if not worse than, physical.

Daniel N. Paul


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