According to the World Health Organisation, addiction to tobacco claims 5.4 million lives annually and continues to be the leading preventable cause of death. "Let us scale up the fight against tobacco," activists tell Prince Frederick on the eve of World No-Tobacco Day.

“Tobacco addiction feeds on five myths. An anti-tobacco campaign can't be effective without addressing them,” says Dr. E. Vidhubala, chief of Resource Centre for Tobacco Control (RCTC) at the Adyar Cancer Institute.

Myth #1

“I'll slowly reduce my tobacco intake and finally stop.”

This is just a smokescreen for prolonging the habit without inviting censure. Smokers say going cold turkey is harmful and cite its side effects as a reason to avoid it. But tapering off is not helpful — the smoker never shakes off the addiction. Quitting cold turkey does entail side effects — such as headaches, irritability and cravings — but they are manageable and last only 10 to 15 days.

Myth #2

“I smoke only a few cigarettes a day and, therefore, am at low risk for cancer or heart problems.”

The number of cigarettes is not a predictor of disease. Smoking has different effects on different people. While some may take decades to develop smoking-induced diseases, others – even moderate smokers – can be affected in a shorter time. Someone may not develop cancer or heart problems from tobacco use, but he may develop any of the other conditions caused by the addiction. Tobacco usage can lead to 54 health problems.

Myth #3

“How can someone else die of my exhaled smoke?”

The lack of awareness about passive smoking is alarming. According to a study, forty percent of school-going children are exposed to passive smoking at home. Petty shopkeepers are another affected segment. Most of the designated smoking bays created by corporate houses don't conform to norms and provide only a false sense of insulation against second-hand smoke.

Myth #4

“Smoking filter and menthol cigarettes results in little harm”.

The idea of smoking with an inbuilt protection against noxious chemicals works only as a theory. In practice, these smokers are still exposed to the effects of smoking.

Myth #5

“I can quit anytime I want!”

The addiction is often underestimated – it's more powerful than most smokers think. Unaided quitting is rare. Most smokers require support – counselling, medication and nicotine-replacement therapy – to shrug off the addiction.

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Message through Magic

Magician Raja Sudhakar gave up smoking four years ago and is now an anti-tobacco campaigner. In one of his stage tricks, he makes a cigarette vanish and shows a raven-black piece of cloth which turns brightly coloured. He tells his audience – mostly comprising children – that smoking can plunge your life into utter darkness (hence the black cloth) and kicking the habit can bring colour back into your life. Sudhakar's climb out of the abyss of nicotine addiction was not as quick as the trick. At age seven, he began to scour around the neighbourhood for beedi stubs. When he grew up and began to smoke openly, he faced no resistance from his family. “My father and five of my six brothers were heavy smokers,” says Sudhakar. Even when his father developed lung cancer and succumbed to it, Sudhakar did not think of breaking the habit. (After Sudhakar quit smoking, one of his brothers died of lung cancer). “One night – at 2 a.m. – I smoked two cigarettes and decided to stop smoking. I was 47 then, and the addiction is gone for good. When I tried smoking once, only to check if the habit could return, the smell of the lit cigarette nauseated me.” Quitting has had a magical effect on his health. “While I was a smoker, I would find it difficult to climb stairs without puffing and panting. A little after quitting, I noticed I could climb stairs effortlessly.” Almost immediately, he launched into anti-tobacco activism. At that time, he was running a petty shop where he put up pictures that portrayed the gory effects of smoking. “My shop sold no cigarettes. My son asked me how I could hope to reach smokers with my message if I did not stock up on cigarettes. I began to sell cigarettes, but they were accompanied by a talk about the dangers of smoking and my personal testimony. The effort set many customers thinking about quitting the habit.”

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Fighting it together

Nicotine Anonymous functions along the same lines of Alcoholics Anonymous. People battling (and those who have overcome) various forms of nicotine addiction meet in friendly groups which maintain a high degree of anonymity to the outside world, and deal with the problem. In April 2005, an advocate and a furniture businessman started the Chennai chapter of Nicotine Anonymous. In those early days, the group conducted its meetings at the TTK de-addiction centre and at Meston College, Royapettah. Now, the Chapter holds regular meetings – announced in the engagement columns of newspapers – at five places around the city. A key member of the chapter, who seeks to remain anonymous in keeping with the cardinal rule of the group, says smoking and other forms of nicotine addiction make insidious inroads into a person's health and life because they are not as repulsive as addiction to alcohol or drugs. The problem is nevertheless equally severe. He claims a 90 per cent success rate for Nicotine Anonymous: after three to four meetings, most people kick the habit. Some go off tobacco after the first meeting. Personal testimonies, along with a scientific explanation of what can go wrong, help these people face their addiction. Continued practice of a 12-step programme and fellowship with other NA members enables them to stay free of tobacco.

This story was corrected for factual error.

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