Double-edged sword

Every time a person lights up – a cigarette that is – his or her blood pressure immediately rises, temporarily. And while smoking increases the risk of stroke and heart disease in people who are already hypertensive, a recent study has found that steady smokers may actually have a lower blood pressure than non-smokers since the nicotine in cigarettes causes a decrease in appetite, which leads to weight loss.

But before dieters assume this is a good thing and opt for nicotine addiction as the way to lose weight, they should consider that this sword cuts another way as well. Half of all the people in the world who smoke cigarettes will die in their prime as a direct result of that habit. And who knows which half of the statistics anyone is likely to fall into?

Smoking is said to be the most preventable cause of premature mortality – people dying between the ages of 35-69 years old – while obesity and high blood pressure also rank high on the list. However, starting smoking and quitting it are definitely behavioural issues and these always tend to be ticklish. High blood pressure and obesity are sometimes linked to genetics, but can also be behavioural and can most certainly be controlled.

Nicotine addiction, while difficult to cure is far easier to treat than the addictions to alcohol, cocaine and other hard drugs. And there has never been any evidence to show that nicotine, while it is highly addictive, alters the mind of the user the way alcohol and cocaine can.

According to the WHO, globally tobacco already kills more than AIDS, legal drugs, illegal drugs, road accidents, murder, and suicide combined. It is projected that in the developing world, cigarettes killed 2.1 million people in 2000 and the same number in the developed world. By the next ten years, deaths in developing countries are expected to have tripled while remaining more or less stagnant in industralised countries.

According to anti-smoking advocates, this is because the tobacco companies, their eyes ever to the bottom line, have seen the decline in use in the developed world and have shifted their sales pitch to capturing people in poorer countries, a lot of whom do not have access to information about cigarettes and how harmful they are. Women and young people are said to be especially targeted.

This is because in the developed world smoking is no longer seen as glamorous as it has been eschewed by many who are looked to as role models – actors and celebrities among them. Even the world’s newest superhero, US President Barack Obama, has been publicly chided, albeit gently, by activists for hanging on to the habit and had promised to quit.

Bans on smoking in public places that have been imposed in the US, UK, parts of Europe and other parts of the world, seem to be having the desired effect as have taxes on tobacco and its byproducts. There is therefore no reason why a concerted ongoing campaign could not see similar success here. The problem seems to be one of continuity.

A signatory to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) since 2005, Guyana through its Ministry of Health began its anti-smoking campaign some time ago by designating some public buildings, including schools ‘smoke-free zones.’ Then there was a lull in activities, though there is a revival in interest around World No Tobacco Day each year. There is a National Tobacco Council, but it is practically invisible. Instead the Minister of Health Dr Leslie Ramsammy, who has more than enough on his plate already, is seen spearheading each initiative and making every announcement.

While it is good that the leadership in stopping smoking comes from the very top, it will not be sustainable if it continues in this fashion.

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