Smoke screams

Smokers in western societies have a haunted look about them. The minute they light up, people - and I'm one of them - look disgusted, cover their noses to avoid the smell and ask to be moved to another table if they happen to be seated next to them at a restaurant.

Why anyone bothers paying good money for fine dining and then smokes is beyond me. People who smoke don't have as effective taste and smell senses as non-smokers.

And they can hardly be impressing their guests by shrouding all those dishes with a pall of foul-smelling smoke.

But this is actually a poorly disguised sympathy column for smokers. They deserve our sympathy for being addicts. And many of them were tricked into it by effective marketing from sophisticated corporations who know how to ensnare their victims when they are most vulnerable - when they are young and image-conscious.

You would think being smelly, unwanted by the rest of society and heading for an early, painful and unglamorous death wouldn't appeal to the image-conscious. But to plenty of teenagers breaking social rules, harming your body, even aiming for death, is still 'cool'. And the tobacco companies know it.

Added to that, they don't mind girls knowing that reducing your sense of taste makes eating much less of a pleasure so the anorexia-minded among our teenagers think it is a weight-loss treatment.

They should see some of the female smokers I have seen in the mortuary. By the time they come to this, they've learned to overeat, despite, or perhaps because of, not tasting their food. Their arteries are clogged with fat and their lungs and hearts have failed. It is not a pretty sight. Whoever still manages to persuade girls that smoking is a glamorous beauty aid is a marketing genius.

But there is good news for smokers. Much of the emphasis of recent anti-smoking campaigns has been on the terrible damage it does. We've been shown the fat building up in arteries, lungs dissolving and drowning in tar, and the many cancers - lung, throat, mouth, skin, even cervical cancer - to which smokers are prone. We've even been treated to examples of the ugliness that is the lot of all long-time smokers - the dry skin, early wrinkling (my favourite is 'dog's bottom mouth', the puckered, wrinkled shape smokers' mouths develop from too much puffing).

But all of this makes many people, once they are addicted to smoking, feel: 'Well it's too late for me. I'm ugly, smelly and heading for cancer. At least I can enjoy a smoke.'

And that's where we come to the good news. Medical researchers who have been tracking medical records dating back to 1951 (a study which was the first to show a strong link between tobacco smoking and cancer) announced recently that while smoking lops at least 10 years off your life, you get a second chance if you quit.

And the earlier you quit, the better your chances of making up the deficit. According to the study, published in The Lancet last week, smokers who quit before the age of 30, lived as long as men who had never smoked. Those who quit before the age of 40 lived, on average, one year less than those who never smoked, giving these people nine years more than they would have had if they didn't quit.

Those who stopped before 50 got an extra six years, thanks to kicking the habit. And those who quit before 60 earned an extra three years as their reward.

So although difficult, stopping smoking is one of the best things you can do for yourself and your family. Some strong personalities can go 'cold turkey' - just simply stop - but for most people going to a support group or smoking cessation clinic is more effective.

Contact Quitline (Smoking counselling and cessation hotline) on 2300 7272. Inquiries, e-mail [email protected]