Kushank Arora (name changed on request) is 21 years old. At his college hostel, he had the reputation of being a prankster, and close friends and hostel mates have been his victims. But during the start of the pandemic, when he was stranded at his home in Mumbai, Kushank decided to trick himself. “My parents are not aware that I smoke and there was no way I could light up a cigarette there,” he said. As a medical student – another reason why he doesn’t want to reveal his real name – he is aware that smoking is an oral fixation and to his parents’ great delight, carrots kept disappearing from the fridge overnight. “Whenever I felt the need to smoke, I would chomp on one of the carrots,” he said. “I tricked myself to quit smoking and what’s more, it worked!”
In the days leading up to the World No-Tobacco Day (May 31), this reporter spoke to smokers who have successfully or unsuccessfully tried to quit smoking.
The pandemic, most said, was the clincher in trying to get rid of the habit. Pulmonologists say cigarette smokers (and vapers) are particularly susceptible to respiratory infections, including Covid 19.
“That sounds like double trouble,” said Riddhi Kumar, a 30-year-old mother of two. She would smoke “5-6 cigarette a day” or whenever she got too stressed. “I had been promising myself for a while that I will try to quit,” she said. “During the first lockdown, it was hard to get cigarettes, so I stopped after my last packet finished. Just like that. I feel good now, but my kids say they preferred it when I used to smoke. They didn’t get yelled at so much.”
Divya T., a 25-year-old lawyer from Mumbai, said that she has tried to quit many times in the past couple of years on a whim. And it is "always a whim" that makes her start again. “I think my longest attempt was around 8 months or so, and I was able to do that because in the first few weeks and months, I decided to eat a Rs 5 dairy milk every time I felt like smoking. It worked quite well actually, because I realised most of the times, I smoked was because I felt restless and needed to do something.” From about 8-10 cigarettes to 2-3 a day, Divya is cutting it down slowly and steadily. “But I did become fatter because of all the chocolates!”
Carrots, chocolates, and what else? There is always the pledge. PR professional Saina Jayapal decided to quit cold turkey one day because of a pledge she had taken. “Made a promise if I get something, I would give up smoking,” she said. “I have kept my end of the bargain.” And initially, whenever she felt the need to smoke, she would “sit next to the smokers, sniffing the smoke”.
Pilgrimages work for some, even though it may seem a tad drastic. Photojournalist K. Anantha Subramanyam, who started with beedis in fourth grade, not surprisingly, went on to become a chain smoker. He calls his 40 years of addiction “an inseparable bond with the cigarette” which even led to an arrest (for smoking on the railway station platform in Goa) and a fine of Rs 50. Ten years back, he decided to go on a pilgrimage, for the duration of which he didn’t touch cigarettes. “After the pilgrimage, I lighted my first cigarette but I hated it. I threw the cigarette after the first few puffs. Now, I will be reaching a decade of quitting smoking completely.”
Meanwhile, Kushank messaged with an update. “Carrots are harder to get in my hostel than cigarettes. I just had my first cigarette post pandemic. But I know how to quit. I just need to live with my parents.”
An Unusual No Smoking Warning
If you wait at a pedestrian light in Singapore, chances are you'll spot a largish rectangle box marked on the road in front of you. Written inside the box: "This is the amount of tar in your lungs after 3 years". It’s a lot of tar!
According to the World Health Organization, 91 countries so far have mandated strong graphic warnings on cigarette packets. Studies show that such warnings deter smokers.According to industry reports, the sales of cigarettes has reached pre-pandemic levels in India and have even surpassed them in some cases. The cost of a single cigarette is Rs 10–15. Even 5 cigarettes a day would set you back by about Rs 50 a day and Rs 1,500 a month.