It was long ago in late summer of 1978 when I stopped smoking cigarettes. I was then a post-graduate student at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, USA. I had my last cigarette at my student apartment in Graduate Towers, Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. If you ask me now whether I had a secret formula that did it, then my answer is ‘no’. I did not have a formula or a recipe. This is my story.
I was 18 when I entered sixth form in 1965, at a boarding school in Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia. Somehow or rather joining sixth form was a bit magical. Suddenly the subjects I learned in classes, especially General Paper, encouraged me to think. Facts and events seemed secondary to reasons as to why they happened. My mind suddenly opened up wide. I started to question almost everything. The child-like desire of trying to know what-happens-next was pushing my inquisitive mind to higher limits. I had entered the age of youth, a fragile state of mind. A rebellious mind.
Smoking cigarettes was not allowed among us students in boarding school. But then some of the teachers smoked. Some of my elders smoked. Many world leaders and famous personalities smoked. Even men of religion smoked. They all seemed to be reasonable people. They seemed to be strong and healthy. There were no criminal laws or religious prohibitions against smoking at that time. What then was so wrong about smoking cigarettes? The facts did not seem to justify the prohibition?
True, the school prefects would catch students who smoked cigarettes. Offenders would be sent to detention classes. But many school prefects did not seem to be very clever people to me then, and so they lost credibility in their action. I had then slowly developed the arrogant attitude of respecting people whom I perceived to be cleverer than me, and not just for their badges. In my mind, I asked the question: what was so wrong with puffing away some smokes!
It was at this stage of mind that I and some of my like-minded colleagues tried smoking cigarettes. So during outing in the weekends, when students were allowed to go to Ipoh town for movies or any other purposes, some of us tried smoking. We had to be discreet so as not to be spotted by our school prefects. I must admit that hiding was difficult since we were all dressed up in school uniforms (white shirts, white trousers and school badges), and so were easily noticeable. But then there was always a way, especially in the darkness of cinema halls while watching movies.
I never brought back cigarettes to the school dormitories, because our cupboards could be subjected for inspection by the warden or prefects during inspection days. But not to worry, at that time we did not have to buy a whole packet of cigarettes to smoke. Most of us needed only one stick or two, and they were available from the restaurant counters which sold loose cigarette sticks in a can. A cigarette stick would cost only ten Malaysian cents then. Some students did brought back cigarettes to school dormitories, but they were those who were more daring?
What were the favourite brands of cigarettes then? Many of us then started with either Peter Stuyvesant, Rothmans or Benson & Hedges. Other famous brands then like Players or State Express were not so popular among us. Peter Stuyvesant was the more popular brand since it had a slightly mentholated filter. But I found the mentholated filter a bit too strong, and had always preferred the traditional Rothmans. But among us students then, the real test of being macho was to smoke the American cigarette Lucky Strike. It was supposed to be ‘toasted’ cigarette and at that time was still without filters. Lucky Strike was strong cigarette, and many of us novices would feel giddy when smoking it.
Looking back at those school days, I have always wondered what was the pleasure of smoking? The plain answer was probably ‘none’. There was no real pleasure in inhaling tobacco smokes. But, it was thrilling. Having a cigarette between your fingers would make us feel like heroes in movies and was exciting. Puffing away circles of smokes into the air like smoke signals was satisfying. And of course, being non-conformist and challenging school rules and not being caught was always an achievement of sort.
I guess now if anyone wants to discourage smoking by a young person, avoid talking about health, legal or religious prohibitions, or even logic. At their state of mind this approach is not likely to work. Try something else!
In 1967 I was admitted to the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur to read economics. I was almost 20 years old. I was no longer staying in boarding school where board and lodging were taken care of. I had to look for my own accommodation. Together with some colleagues we shared a small terrace house a few kilometres away from the university campus and managed the house keeping ourselves.
I had a bed and a small study table beside it. The study lamp was standard equipment for us students to work at night. But I had something extra on my table, an ash tray for my cigarettes. Sitting at night and looking at my lecture notes would not be complete without a cigarette.
At the University of Malaya campus I noticed that many people smoked cigarettes, students and lecturers included. There were no rules disallowing smoking in campus, except in specific buildings like the library. Otherwise, in the corridors of the offices and lecture theatres I saw people smoking. Some students were daring enough to smoke even in lecture theatres causing inconvenience to other students. They were normally the backbenchers, those who sat at the back rows. Most lecturers did not bother about it, but I do recall a good professor walking up the theatre aisle to confront the smoking students, asking them to put off their cigarettes. The good professor had his way!
By this time my cigarette consumption was about six sticks a day. Normally I would buy a box of ten or twelve cigarettes and it would last for almost two days. At that time I was still changing brands between Rothmans and Benson & Hedges. I guess I was not really addicted to cigarettes then, because I was not brand specific.
I noticed that when I was reading I had the tendency to light a cigarette and held it between my fingers. Sometimes I had only a few puffs and the rest of the cigarette turned to ashes. Sometimes a lighted cigarette would just burn away on an ash tray. But when I was deep in thought, like when doing calculation in mathematics or statistics, I just had a pencil or pen in my right hand and that was all. I guess having a pen or pencil between my fingers was in a way a substitute for holding a cigarette.
In 1970 I started working after graduation. The number of cigarettes I smoked per day increased. From a box of twelve cigarettes per day I increased my consumption to the bigger box of twenty. At the height of my consumption it went up to more than that, especially on weekends.
Why the increase in consumption? One reason was that I could afford it. I was then working and had income. There were also more opportunities to smoke. People smoked in their office rooms. People smoked during office meetings. Ash trays were available on meeting tables. When I was riding a motor cycle during my university days it was difficult to smoke, though some did. But now that I was working and had a car, it was different. Smoking cigarettes while driving was acceptable. It was also stylish. You could see this in movies. That was why cars were equipped with cigarette lighters and ash trays. Further, during those days most cars were not air-conditioned as today. We drove with the glass-windows down, and as such smoking was easier as the smoke would find its way out through the car windows.
Having a cigarette box in my shirt pocket was important. Somehow or rather whenever I stepped out of my house it would seem incomplete if I don’t have a cigarette box in my shirt pocket. Not that cigarettes were not easily available in town, neither did I had an irresistible craving for tobacco at all times. But somehow or rather, a cigarette box in a shirt pocket became some sort of a dress code and a lifestyle.
The status symbol in smoking was interesting. I guess a real smoker enjoyed smoking for its tobacco. But for me, having a good and expensive cigarette lighter was important. At that time I used a Ronson brand lighter. It was metallic and shining and was a beautiful equipment to place on the table. At one time I upgraded myself to using a sterling silver Colibri brand lighter, as a status symbol. Just imagine, when I and my colleagues sat down at a table for any purpose, and we started smoking, the lighters looked more stylish than the match boxes. At least so we thought?
How do you define addiction to cigarette smoking? Some are addicted to tobacco while some are merely tied to a smoking habit. In my youth days I rarely saw people who were seriously addicted to tobacco, in such a way that they would lose self control without it. Many of my friends, despite being heavy smokers, survived the fasting month of Ramadhan, when they could not have cigarettes during the day. I guess our addiction was more in the mind than in the biological system.
In late summer of 1977 I started my post-graduate studies at The Wharton School, Pennsylvania. I was accommodated in a student apartment at Graduate Towers, a short distance from the school. I shared a two bedroom apartment with another student. During my stay there I remember moving apartments several times and having different apartment mates. None of them smoked cigarettes. That was my first problem. I had to smoke in my own bedroom so as not to inconvenience them. But then the bedroom was air-conditioned and there was very little air circulation. Soon my bedroom and my blankets started to smell of smokes. Once in a while I had to slide open the heavy glass window to let some fresh air in. It was the first signal of my problem with smoking.
The rules on smoking were stricter in USA than in Malaysia then. In the university most places were non-smoking areas. Even in the town the big stores did not allow smoking. So my smoking sessions were limited to open air places during lunch breaks or during my walk between apartment and classrooms.
Then came the winter of 1977. It was wet and very cold, very different from the hot weather in Malaysia. The weather did not permit smoking while walking in open air places. It was just not smoking friendly. It was even difficult to hold a cigarette when I had my winter gloves on.
Cigarettes were also expensive in the USA. Most of my colleagues smoked American brands, like Marlboro which came in soft packs. But I was used to Rothmans which were packed in boxes of twenty sticks. Rothmans were imported cigarettes. They came from Canada and were relatively expensive. They were also difficult to get since the brand was not popular among Americans. So after a short while I changed brand to a close substitute, Benson & Hedges. This brand was more easily available in Philadelphia.
Not all stores sold my brand of cigarettes and as such I could not buy it in single box at the grocery stores. I had to get them from special stores in down town Philadelphia. My normal purchase was by cartons of ten boxes. I would normally buy two or three cartons at a time and keep them in my bedroom cupboard. They were almost priceless things.
During the winter of 1977 I spent more time in my bedroom. Daylight was short and I did not like being outside in the cold weather after dark. Even going to the library at night was not encouraging due to the extremely cold weather. Time was then mostly spent on doing class assignments and watching TV in my bedroom. I became an armchair sports experts – especially on ice hockey and American football in winter.
I continued to smoke cigarettes. But the motivation was changing. Smoking was no longer a means to emulate others whether they were the famous or the great, nor was it a means to emphasise non-conformity to current norms. Challenging social norms was less attractive then. The rebel in me was fading away. Even the show-off attitude of carrying an expensive cigarette lighter was no longer there. Nobody was fascinated by it in campus. At 30 years of age, my youthful state of mind was slowly leaving me. I was becoming more logical, and my head was gradually taking over from my heart in decision-making. I was then entering an age of reason and maturity.
In the summer of 1978 I spent most of my time in campus, doing extra courses to enable me to complete my M.B.A. program by December. It was a very boring experience, attending classes when most of other students were enjoying themselves elsewhere.
Smoking was easier in the summer since the days were longer and I had more outdoor time. But I recall that the thrill of smoking was no more as it was earlier. I did not have many smoking friends and so most of my smoking sessions were alone, in my apartment or outside the building. The compulsive behaviour, the habit of reaching out for my cigarette box, tapping out a cigarette stick from the box and lighting it was still there. It was still like an automatic action whenever I had nothing else to do. But somehow or rather, there was not much crave for tobacco and the real pleasure of smoking cigarettes was slowly diminishing.
In late summer of 1978 I was finishing my extra summer classes. The Fall semester was approaching. I had only one more semester to complete before I could go home to Malaysia at the end of the year. Then the magical event happened. I fell sick.
The worst experience for a student was to fall sick alone in a foreign land. And the worst period to have it was summer when not many people were around. I had a bad cough and a slight fever. With self medication the fever subsided after a few days, but the cough persisted longer for a few weeks. It was then I began to part ways with the smoking habit.
I always had a few cartons of cigarettes stacked away in my bedroom cupboard and I could see them every time I opened my cupboard. The large supply was to ensure that I never ran out of it. Remember that smoking cigarettes was a daily routine, and there were no days off. But when I was down with fever and had a cough, cigarette smoking became an unpleasant experience. While taking out a cigarette and lighting it was a habitual movement, inhaling the smoke became less pleasant. My cough and smoking did not go well together.
I did reached for a few cigarette sticks per day during the early period of my illness but it was more out of habitual compulsion to smoke rather than for the pleasure of tobacco. At this juncture the stuffy air in my bedroom and the smelly blanket in my bed became noticeable. It had been like that for some time but I never really bothered about it before. The blame game then began. The culprit was cigarette smoking in the room.
One day I ran out of cigarettes from the boxes on my table. To smoke I would need to open a new carton from the top shelf in my cupboard. The extra supply was always there. But I was too lazy to get on top of a chair to reach for the carton at the top shelf. I told myself, “I’ll get it later”. That was the magic turn of event. From a smoking postponement of hours it became a day, two days and more. It stretched for weeks, months and that was it. I already had my last cigarette.
The strange thing was that during the early period of my illness when I did not smoke it never occurred to me that I wanted to stop smoking. It was never the plan. In fact I saw my cigarette cartons every day when I opened my cupboard. I never declared war against my cigarettes. It was just that in my mind I told myself “maybe later”.
Was there ever an issue of ‘strong will power’ to stop smoking? No, there was none. I never thought of it and I never had it. Even now I do not believe that the average smoker anywhere in the world would have the will power strong enough to stop smoking.
Perhaps, as a guidance I would not encourage any counsellor to use the argument of ‘will power’ to persuade a person to cut smoking. It is not likely to work.
In Fall 1978 my final semester began. I had now stopped smoking. It was initially an awkward experience. My bedroom then had less stuffy air and my blankets smelt fresher. I had removed the ash tray from my study table and the cigarette box was no longer a permanent feature there. I admit that was an initiative. If you call it will power then it was at most a very mild form of deliberate action.
When I went outdoors I no longer had a cigarette box in my jacket. Our partnership had ended. Most times I never realised that I was not carrying a box of cigarettes. Of course, there were occasions when the habitual action of reaching for a cigarette box in my jacket occurred automatically. This sometimes happened after having lunch at the lunch truck in the campus, or after a cup of coffee or tea. But the compulsion to look for a cigarette was no longer there.
Was there an immediate withdrawal syndrome? I did not have any significant signs in the early period. My friends told me to take sweets or chewing gum to keep my mind away from cigarettes. But I did not need that. I did not deliberately keep away from the sight of cigarettes. In fact, every day when I opened my cupboard in my bedroom I would see the unopened cartons of Benson & Hedges there. There was no problem with that. They were expensive items and so I just left them there. In fact I only threw them away when I did my room cleaning before going home to Malaysia.
In late December 1978 I completed my MBA programme and headed home to Kuala Lumpur. Within a short period I was back to my office routine. By early 1979 I had stopped smoking for about six months. Then I experienced the effects of stopping smoking.
The first effect was on food consumption. When I was smoking cigarettes I never really enjoyed eating. Maybe the tobacco had dampened my taste buds. Now that I had stopped smoking food became tastier. I ate more. I enjoyed eating.
The second effect was that I became much affected by secondary cigarette smokes. In a closed area if someone smoked, I quickly smelt tobacco and it affected me more than others who did not smoke. In fact, today I would quickly detect secondary smokes from nearby smokers. Nowadays, even when I check in into a hotel I always insist for a non-smoking room. The smell of tobacco on the bed linen would deprive me of a good night sleep.
Now in 2014 I had quit smoking for over 35 years. I had not touched a single cigarette since late 1978. At the rate of about 20 cigarettes a day this means in 35 years I had skipped over 250,000 sticks. Wow! That is a lot!
What lessons can I share with others who want to quit smoking?
I have no secret formula or recipe to prescribe. But, the above is my story.