It's unattractive and unhealthy, so why smoke?

Smoking is unattractive and unhealthy, says Rachel Stewart.
Smoking is unattractive and unhealthy, says Rachel Stewart.

Smoking. Why would anyone in their right mind choose to do it?

A week ago it became illegal to have tobacco, and all of its associated products, on display in stores.

For television to illustrate the news story, or any story on cigarettes, they employ ultra close- up footage of the lips of some unshaven male smoker taking deep drags on a fag. Invariably they find one who has greasy skin, prolific blackheads and a crusty mouth.

It's repellent.

I'm also reliably grossed out by the photos on ciggie packets of malfunctioning human offal, or eyes, or teeth.

Presumably that's the whole point and, while those images certainly affect me negatively, it's a shame I'm not their target audience.

On top of this, smokers face a future of large, regular price hikes. Currently, a pack-a-day smoker will spend more than $5000 a year.

As if we need reminding, smokers feature large in negative health statistics. At least 50 per cent of New Zealand's 20 per cent of regular smokers will eventually be killed by their addiction and, on average, will lose 14 years of life.

Like modern-day lepers, smokers find themselves huddling together in groups outside office buildings, pubs and restaurants.

Non-smokers like me drive past and feel nothing but pity for them, really. They are fast becoming the most uncool, best-avoided assemblage in society.

So, knowing everything we all categorically know about the perils of a tobacco habit, the burning question has to be why anyone willingly, knowingly does it?

The psychological theory goes that humans are wired to only react to things we can immediately see. If there are consequences further down the track then we don't really compute the danger.

This helps explain mankind's inertia on any meaningful strategy to deal with climate change - which we now find fair snapping at our heels.

However, the addiction factor remains the massive hurdle for most smokers to overcome. Tobacco companies can and do bank on it. (While I considered having a lash at those crooks, I am saving them for their own special column because they're worth it).

My mother smoked at least a packet a day for more than 35 years. Then she had a sudden, massive angina attack, necessitating hospitalisation. The doctor bluntly told her to stop or die. She quit out of fear overnight and never took it up again.

By then, the damage was probably already done, and five years later, aged 71, she died of an abdominal aortic aneurism - a condition commonly linked to smoking. She wasn't old, because 71 isn't, and I sometimes wonder, had she not smoked, whether she'd have enjoyed a few more years.

Born in 1930, she would not have felt the full brunt of society's judgment on smoking. She grew up in an era when it was glamorous even.

That era has now well and truly passed, and smokers no doubt feel more alienated every day.

I have just a handful of friends who smoke. They must be truly important to me because I find smokers as a rule fairly difficult to be around.

Not least because they reek of smoke, are always having to "pop outside" for a puff, or could look far healthier than they do. Despite my best efforts, I do find myself judging them. Every single one of them possesses an excellent brain and I am at a genuine loss to figure out why they do it. I have the odd dig but mostly I shut up and just enjoy their company.

Still, it saddens me that they would take a gamble on something so unnecessary and unhealthy. It strikes me as akin to a death wish.

Of course, and I find this as a general rule, they are very defensive about their smoking and bite back at any real or perceived criticism.

As with any addiction - like alcohol or drugs - people are usually in denial and will even sever friendships without so much as a backward glance if they feel they're being unduly scrutinised.

They often spend time bargaining with themselves and others with "if I wasn't smoking I'd be fat" or "you've got to die of something" or "you can't kill a weed". Well, maybe, but these lines are a wee bit predictable and a tad boring.

If smokers can't honestly see a way to try to live a bit longer, and in better health, for themselves, their kids and their grandchildren, then nothing anyone can say will change that.

Maybe I'm being too simplistic, but with every possible avenue available to smokers in terms of support to give up, I can only come to one conclusion why they don't. They just don't like themselves enough.

Time to start, I reckon.

Taranaki Daily News