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No, smokers don't just need sympathy - They need help to stop smoking

Two in three smokers want to give up writes Donald Buggy of the Irish Cancer Society.

Image: Sean Dempsey

PURITANS! ZEALOTS! TYRANTS!

Reading opinion pieces on the smoking ban in recent weeks, you’d be forgiven for thinking that “health zealots”, like me, are intent on pursuing a crusade to persecute smokers.

The militant zeal with which we pursue our nefarious ends, namely supporting a 12-year-old, successful ban on smoking in the workplace, has somehow struck fear into a handful of commentators.

While our new Junior Health Minister, Finian McGrath’s, contribution on the workplace smoking ban was, at best, misguided, his more relevant commentary on the complexity of smoking, and the supports needed for smokers was unfortunately lost in the fog.

At the Irish Cancer Society we know that smoking is more complex than a simplistic pro- or anti-smoking ban narrative. We know that rather than sermonising, when existing smokers want to quit, they require individualised support.

Oh, and the majority of smokers, like our minister, really do want to quit.

World No Tobacco Day

Today marks World No Tobacco Day. It is a global action highlighting what people can do to claim their right to health, to healthy living and to protect future generations.

Most of us know the dangers of smoking, but it is worth repeating.

One in two smokers will die from a tobacco related disease. Left unchallenged smoking is projected to kill one billion people this century. Currently almost 6,000 smokers die prematurely every year in Ireland. That is like the population of Westport dying early every year. Yet we accept this as normal.

16/5/2016 National Kidney Transplant Units Junior Health Minister Finian McGrath said recently that he 'tries to quit every day'. Source: RollingNews.ie

To actually stop unnecessary deaths, action needs to be taken to encourage and help people quit smoking, rather than offering disingenuous platitudes about the smoker’s plight.

Global Tobacco Control

The theme of this year’s World No Tobacco Day, plain packaging, is especially timely given the recent delay in introducing it here.

Plain packs, when introduced, will further denormalise smoking, discouraging young people from taking up the habit and encouraging some existing smokers to quit.

It represents another piece in the global tobacco control puzzle that is not yet complete.

I am proud that Ireland has consistently led the way in putting these pieces in place. We were the first country to protect all workers with a workplace smoking ban.

In the ten years following its introduction, research estimates that 3,726 lives were saved, while the rate of smoking has fallen from over 30% to below 20% today, saving thousands more lives into the future.

The scourge of tobacco is a global problem. When a cigarette is lit it should be remembered that thousands of children working in Indonesia’s tobacco fields are being subjected to the harsh side effects of nicotine poisoning, such as vomiting and dizziness, by handling the leaves of the toxic plant.

Tobacco is not a normal product and should not be treated as such.

New Zealand Plain Packaging The kind of packaging the government wants to introduce in the coming years. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Success in protecting Irish children

Back home, great progress has been achieved in protecting children from initiating smoking since the introduction of the workplace smoking ban. The smoking rate among 10-17 years old has fallen from almost one in four back then to less than one in ten today.

Successive governments have supported efforts aimed at stopping children before they start. This included a ban on ten packs in 2007, a ban on in-store advertising in 2009, the inclusion of graphic health warnings on cigarette packets from 2013 on, and a ban on smoking in cars with children from the start of this year.

All of this has made smoking seem less normal and attractive to everyone, but especially children.

Quit support

Minister McGrath said that he tries to give up smoking every day. He’s not alone. Almost two in every three smokers want to quit. The fact that he, like many others, have been unsuccessful up to now suggests we aren’t doing enough and need to do more. We must offer real tangible supports, not platitudes.

Quitting smoking is one for the hardest things you can do. While going “cold turkey” works for some, it doesn’t work for others. When it doesn’t work out it can be frustrating, and can trigger feelings of guilt and failure.

To achieve the goal of a tobacco free Ireland by 2025 we need more former smokers.

More importantly, we have to listen to smokers and tailor programmes to their needs. The Irish Cancer Society is currently running a community-based support programme, We Can Quit, which encourages women living in disadvantaged areas to quit smoking.

Women in lower socioeconomic groups have the highest rate of smoking in Ireland and are more likely to get lung, head and neck cancers.

Our programme empowers women to take control of their smoking by offering them supportive space to understand their addiction, build confidence to quit, and to share experiences from each other.

Rather than stigmatising smokers and telling them that they’re under attack, we must listen to what they need and understand what supports work for them. We need to invest in more former smokers.

If asking for this makes me a zealot, then call me a zealot.

Donal Buggy is Head of Services and Advocacy at the Irish Cancer Society.

Find out more about the Irish Cancer Society’s 12-week We Can Quit programme

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