“All the intellectual, arty women I knew smoked. So, it must be cool.” PHOTO: FILE
I still remember how my brothers would deftly hide their cigarettes when ammi or abba entered the room. Those were the best and worst of times – times of unawareness and lightheartedness, when I’d sit for hours in a smoke-filled room with my brothers – chatting and laughing over senseless things like one only can with siblings.
All that while, I was inhaling 250 toxins and carcinogens, quite unsuspectingly. I didn’t know any better and neither did my siblings. We were secure in our belief that we, the girls, were not smoking actively.
As a teenager, I started interning at a magazine and this is where smoking began to look ‘cool’ to me. Even as a woman. I saw my seniors, mostly women – bright, accomplished and sincere women, all trying to make a difference to society – weaving words beautifully story after story. These were people I looked up to and they all had a cigarette pack on their table.
What was an innocent teenager supposed to think?
Obviously, that it was cool to smoke.
After all, this was something that all brainy, intelligent, arty and literati types did. Consequently, I began to believe that this was something that helps the creative process; something that helps one act with clarity; gets the creative juices flowing, so to say.
On the other hand, I also came to see smoking as something you rely on when you have a break-up or when you hang out with friends. It was one of the lesser evils; in fact, since everyone around me was doing it, it didn’t seem all that evil at all.
Of course, being a woman and smoking somehow made it seem even cooler.
Having said that, fortunately enough, I did not go on to become an active smoker, but I have at some level, like many of us, equated smoking as a right that I have as much as a man does.
Then, the other day, in a room full of journalists talking about lung health in the 44th Union World Conference on Lung Health in Paris, a speaker cut through the jargon and made a point that hit me. According to him, research shows that,
“Women say we have rights equal to those of men. So they say ‘hey, I have an equal right to lung cancer’!”
That literally jarred me into re-thinking my perspective on smoking. Of course, I knew all of this already but had somewhere along the line simply chosen to stop reading more into it.
Experts reveal that in stage two of the tobacco epidemic, smoking in females rises by 50%. It seems that Pakistan’s urban cities are already there.
Did you know that cigarettes are the only legal consumer product in the world that has the potential to kill half its users?
They carry 700 chemicals that include carcinogens, can affect one’s immune system and cause greater susceptibility to respiratory tract diseases. Moreover, smoking takes away the glow and sheen of our skin, hair and nails over time and leaves us looking lifeless. Yet, we can’t seem to stop smoking. Why?
Simply because it is one of the most addictive substances in the world that quite literally re-wires the brain.
Talking to a female journalist friend, I asked her how she started smoking. She replied,
“It all started off as a new experience, just a couple of friends trying something new. Also, at some point there was that feeling that I too can do anything I want as a woman. But once you ‘grow up’, you really see how stupid it is.”
However, in most cases by the time one realises how stupid smoking really is, one is already too far gone to get off the addiction. At least, too far gone to get off it easily.
It’s funny how humans are strangely stupid most of the time. We walk around thinking that we know it all, while in reality, we are basically sponges. We absorb what’s around us. We are conditioned to believe what’s cool and what’s not. We are affected by what’s around us. We are always changing, evolving and growing, but sometimes the changes take us in the wrong direction.
However, therein lies hope as well. Since we are creatures of habit, it is in us to undo certain habits. We can learn and unlearn. So, it is possible to push our boundaries by questioning ourselves too.
While women smokers are definitely on the rise all over the world, we tend to forget that women are also more susceptible to certain health risks than men when it comes to smoking. For instance, they are much more likely to develop arthritis than men if they smoke, and 14 per cent of pre-term deliveries happen to mothers who smoke during pregnancy.
As a gender activist, I believe that humans are equal, irrespective of their gender. So, as far as I am concerned, the reduction in the gender gap is generally a good thing; but does that mean that I must make the same mistakes as men?
Will that make me feel more emancipated, free and able?
I would be dumb to believe that, right?
Unfortunately, I suspect at times I may have been just that.
Now, let’s get to some more hard facts.
Smoking causes 5.4 million deaths each year.That means that out of the 1 billion smokers alive today, 50 million will die because of tobacco use.
Tobacco will kill some 175 million or more people between now and the year 2030. And I, for one, do not want to be one of them. Although I truly believe that death is not something we can control, we do have the ability to make informed decisions about how we want to lead our lives.
It almost shames me to think that in spite of knowing all these statistics, I chose to conveniently forget them and lived in a state of denial that this self-destructive addiction is simply part of being a creative person.
At the conference, Indian journalist and TV presenter Lotty Alaric, nailed it when she said,
“I don’t smoke because l don’t need a four inch paper roll billowing smoke to measure my cool quotient. I’m too secure a woman to rely on that.”
So, whether it is a secret desire to be able to do what men can, or simply a bad habit, it’s time to call it quits.
Ladies first, please.