From Happy Meals to Nicotine Addiction

Happy Meals / Nicotine Addiction
From Happy Meals to Nicotine Addiction

I remember when my daughter was 11, she was still asking for Happy Meals whenever we went to McDonalds, which wasn’t very often. As a divorced Dad, I would sometimes stop at a hamburger place on the two-hour drive home for the weekend. My son and I poked fun at my daughter, wondering why she was still interested in silly plastic figurines at her age. She stood her ground as she always has, leaving us wondering how it was possible to play with imaginary characters and stupid toys, but at the same time, we respected her for being so determined. She was always forthright, calculated, scheming, devious and absolutely charming. She’s a very street-smart girl. I love her so much.

Within just a couple of years, her mother told me that my daughter had been caught smoking. I suspected that if she’d only just been caught, she’d probably already been smoking for a while. Perhaps she’d even been smoking before her last Happy Meal. It wouldn’t have surprised me. After all, I’d been smoking on and off since I was 12 years old because that’s how it was back then.

In many ways, I see my daughter’s character both positively and negatively reflecting my own. I feel proud and ashamed at the same time. I feel worried because I don’t want for her to take as long as I did before quitting. I want for her to have the best possible chance to live healthily. It makes me sad to think that I quit smoking more or less around the same time as she started. I was 48 and she was 11 or 12.  I had smoked for over 25 years and was elated at having managed to quit.  I thought that my exuberance at the time was contagious, giving the message that smoking is an evil thing and that no person should ever have to endure nicotine addiction. For me, that’s how it felt.

I can only hope now that with a little persuasion, some open conversation and a lot of support, she manages to rid herself of her dependence on nicotine. I will be there to help.

Turning a Blind Eye

Being a donkey
Being a donkey

Smoking can destroy you but only if the worst comes to the worst. Not everyone who smokes falls terminally ill. Most illnesses happen to unhealthy people who live unhealthy lifestyles. Smoking is just one way you can degrade your health. There are much worse things you could be doing than smoking. At least you’re not doing hard drugs. Besides, you know that you’ll quit smoking one day, just not today. It’s not important enough today.

The arguments are valid. You wake up the next morning and life moves on. You made it! You can make it again tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. What’s there to worry about? Practically nothing. Even if you do worry, time has shown that you’ve been wasting your energy on senseless thoughts. Your friends smoke and your parents smoke, yet none of them has cancer. In the back of your head, there’s something telling you that you might be the one to change that pattern, but every day proves that you’re not the one. You’re a survivor. You can beat all the odds and live a long, happy, healthy life regardless of the warnings. With a wry smile and some nervous laughter, you’ll admit that you could be the one, but you hope that you won’t be.

Cut back to the 90’s when my son was in intensive care with a rare form of auto-immune disease (AIHA). He was 11 months old at the time and his life was on the line. Lucky for his mother and I, we had an excellent oncologist taking care of him. The situation was overwhelming, not knowing if he was going to live or die. He’s 19 now, but I still reflect on how difficult it was accepting that his life may be taken away by nature’s course. Even more significant to me was the fact that my son was only one of the few facing a potential death sentence. The oncologist’s waiting room was filled with children with varying degrees of cancerous illnesses. I’d never known that so many people could be so sick and all at the same time! Every one of them was hoping for the best, as were their parents and loved ones.

These children came from everywhere. If you lived in a small town or a village, you might have known one, or perhaps none. Statistically, they didn’t count for much. What’s one in one thousand, or one in a hundred thousand? The numbers seem irrelevant when taken individually. You could walk around for weeks and months and never hear of another child with a life-threatening disease. And yet, they were all gathered here, all of them very sick and all of them needing expert care and help. They hadn’t chosen their fate. Fate had chosen them. All of them. Seeing so many of them gathered in one place made me realize that my son wasn’t the unfortunate one. He was the unfortunate one of many.

Turn a blind eye to the potential for being the chosen one who succumbs to cancer or another smoking-related illness. Not everybody has the privilege of attending the oncology clinic of the chosen few. Your friends and family may miss you but rest assured that, for the majority of people, you’ll be nothing more than a statistic. At least at the clinic you’ll find yourself among friends of a similar disposition.

Can’t Quit Smoking? Switch Gears!


Anyone who has been smoking for a long time and has tried quitting without success will know that it requires some forethought, such as:

  • When will I quit?
  • Which method will I use (cold turkey, NRT, hypnosis, acupuncture, meditation)?
  • If I go for NRT, which product will I use (Champix®, Chantix®, patches, gum, lozenges etc.)?
  • What kind of support system will I use (friends, family, doctor, Internet forums etc.)?
  • What will I do instead of smoking?
  • How will I fight the nicotine cravings?
  • Will I still be able to socialize with smoking friends and colleagues?
  • Will I be able to drink alcohol and stay strong?

These are just a sampling of some of the more common questions that people ask themselves when quitting. You probably have your own list of concerns. If this is the first time you are attempting to quit, you may be drawn toward online resources on the topic, especially as there is so much information out there on the Internet. You may have bought one or many of the available books. There is a wealth of ideas and opinions about how to quit, which methodology to use, which products work best, and how to manage your life after having put down that last cigarette. There are even statistics showing which method works best. However, bear in mind that these are just ideas, opinions and statistics! I’m not dismissing their value because the more informed you are, the more choices you will have to prepare yourself and manage quitting. Knowledge is power!

What is important to realize is that what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another, even if the ideas, opinions and statistics show certain trends. For example, if 80% of people quit by going ‘cold turkey’ and it didn’t work for you, it means that you are part of the 20%. But, that is all. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be part of the 80% during another attempt, and it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with being part of the 20%. Perhaps you need to try nicotine replacement therapy or another method of quitting. Similarly, you may have chosen to quit at the wrong time. For example, during a period of high stress at work or a relaxing holiday (both situations cause people to want to smoke). You may have had a few drinks and temporarily lost your ambition to stay quit. You may have had a ‘quit buddy’ who started smoking again, causing you to cave in. There are so many things that can go wrong!

If you have attempted to quit but haven’t succeeded, then take the time to understand what went wrong. Was it the method you used, or the fact that you had a few drinks? The two are not necessarily directly linked. Just because you went cold turkey at the time doesn’t mean that the method was the problem, nor was drinking definitely the problem. You need to delve deep into the cause at that moment in time. It could be that the sight of other smokers made you want to smoke too. Perhaps you were cajoled by one or more smoking friends into having just one cigarette. Maybe it was at that party when your quit buddy decided to succumb. There are so many combinations and iterations of what could cause a relapse that it would be impossible to talk about all of them here. My point is for you to try to understand the circumstances of the relapse and to question yourself about the underlying cause. If you can pinpoint the cause, then chances are that you can avoid those situations in future, particularly when you quit again.

By building up this self-knowledge, you will be better armed for your next attempt. It doesn’t matter whether you choose the same method or a different method, use the same or a different product, the same or different support system, drink or not drink, or which activities you choose in lieu of smoking. If you ask around, people will give you ideas and opinions and the statistics will continue to show the same trends. Use this information to your advantage, judging it carefully to determine if it suits your style of quitting. If it doesn’t, then don’t try to force it. Everyone is different, and it doesn’t matter whether you are in the 80% or the 20%. What matters is that you keep track of what worked well and what didn’t work and switch gears for the subsequent attempt!

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” – Winston Churchill.

What the Funk?

Man in a funk / depression

One of the most common feelings when first quitting smoking is being in a funk. Your intention to quit was great, but you quickly realize that time passes very slowly without a cigarette and thoughts of smoking are filling your head. You start engaging in an internal dialogue about your choice to quit, whether you can manage, and everywhere around you people are smoking and talking about smoking. Suddenly, instead of going about living life and incidentally being a smoker, everything in life revolves around smoking and quitting smoking. It can be all-encompassing!

To draw a parallel, it reminds me somewhat of getting divorced. Whether you made the choice yourself or if it was forced upon you, your whole world is suddenly turned upside down. Everywhere you look, there are reminders of happy relationships, marriage and divorce, whether you’re watching a TV show, reading a magazine, browsing the internet or talking to friends. It feels like there has never been such an overwhelming amount of information about the topic, and it feels like it’s all targeted towards you. Everybody has ganged together to remind you of what’s happening, making you overly conscious of your crappy situation.

The truth is that nothing has changed, except for the fact that you’ve quit smoking. There is no more or less information or talk about smoking than there was before you decided to quit. What is happening is that you are more aware of smoking. Whereas previously it was something that you just did as part of your daily routine, it has now become something that you need to focus on not doing. That focus amplifies everything you see and hear about smoking.

There is not much you can do to stop noticing this sudden emphasis, but you can at least tell yourself that it is a phase that will eventually pass. Just like a divorce, the passing away of a loved one or a beloved pet, or many other of life’s crises, you will reach a point where you get over the funk and are able to rebuild a new life.

You’re Almost There!

golf hole

One of the things I have seen too often is people managing to quit for several months and then suddenly declaring that they have had a relapse. They have smoked one or more cigarettes. Sometimes and hopefully most of the time, this is a once-off situation; a little blip. The person can stop themselves from smoking again without too many problems. Sadly, at other times it leads to the individual going back to smoking full-time and having to quit smoking again at a later date.

Based on my observations there are two main timeframes in which relapses occur. The first is during the initial few days or the very early weeks of having quit. This is when people feel most vulnerable and prone to cravings caused by the depletion of nicotine from their system combined with the psychological aspects of changing their daily routine. The situation is understandable considering the immediacy of the problem. But what of those people who smoke a cigarette out of the blue after several months?

Of course, there can be many explanations. A traumatic event can lead to a sudden relapse based on your past experience of smoking to relieve tension. A few too many drinks can lead you to letting down your guard and thinking “Just one won’t hurt”. It could be that you’ve become so comfortable with not smoking that you’ve lost sight of how addictive it is. It may even be that you think “I’ll just have a few this evening,” or “I’ll just smoke casually at weekends”. I’m sure there are many other situations that I have not mentioned and some that I cannot even imagine.

The depressing thing for me is that these people have been through a lot of effort to quit. They have often suffered physical and psychological withdrawal. They have started to build a new life as a non-smoker (or ex-smoker if you prefer). They have seen others continue to smoke, and they have resisted the temptation. They have found new habits to replace the old. Their bodies have started to heal, and generally they have managed to distance themselves from smoking. Sure, there may still be some reminiscence of the ‘good old days’ (I still have this after over 4 years), but by and large they are well on their way to success. It’s only a putt shot away.

I’m a firm believer in planning to quit and understanding the stages of quitting. That means being aware that once you are over the hump of the first few weeks comes a stage of slow change, and that once you have been quit for several months, you still need to keep up your guard and never forget why you decided to quit in the first place. You’re almost there!


The Tobacconist


Today I went out for a walk to buy cat food and suddenly remembered that I needed paper for my printer. I knew there was a newsagent* on my way, so I thought I’d stop there on my return journey. No point in carrying two reams of 500 pages or 10lbs (4.5 kilos) all the way to the pet shop and back, right?

Unfortunately, the newsagent was closed until 3pm and it was only 2:40pm. I knew they had previously carried stock, but I didn’t want to wait outside because the weather was unpredictable and it wasn’t certain they would have any. I decided to go home sheetless.

But, after a quick swing by the butchers shop to buy a pork chop and some traditional Belgian stoemp (mashed potatoes with veggies), I saw the tobacconist* across the road. They sold all sorts of bric-a-brac other than tobacco. I decided to give it a shot.

Standing in front of the woman behind the counter, I was awestruck. Her rack was enormous! There were rows upon row of packs of cigarettes lined up waiting to be bought. At a quick guesstimate, I would say there were about 10 rows high, by 15 packs wide and 10 packs deep, with an average of 20 cigarettes per pack. That’s 30,000 cigarettes for sale right there, right now, in a little tobacco shop at the corner of my street. That’s before the deliveryman comes to replenish the stock. Needless to say, they didn’t sell reams of paper and so I walked home.

The sight of all those cigarettes intrigued and repulsed me somewhat. On the one hand, it provided me with a glimpse of nostalgia, remembering how I used to voluntarily and excitedly fork out some of my hard-earned cash just to send a portion of it literally up in smoke. On the other hand, it reminded me of just how blind I had been about the addiction, the lies I had told myself and others, and my ignorance about the health dangers of smoking.


* Newsagent = A place to buy newspapers, cigarettes, and other consumable paraphernalia such as sweets (candy in the US).

* Tobacconist = A place to buy tobacco, newspapers, and other consumable paraphernalia such as sweets (candy in the US).

– My partner swears that I was born from a different era, one in which they said apothecary instead of pharmacy. Bah, humbug!

– All puns are intended.