“Hello, my name is Jude, and I’m a nicotine addict.”
I’ve been addicted to cigarettes ever since it was legal for me to light up, which in Singapore is 18 years old.
“One puff and you’re hooked,” warned an old Singapore anti-smoking campaign. And it was not far from the truth. It’s a pity I was never too good at listening to authorities.
While serving in the army, cigarettes were a prized commodity that even money couldn’t buy. Indeed, “smoking is a privilege”, the instructors often reminded my fellow smokers and I – the preamble to us grovelling for a smoking break, often at the cost of extra duties, which we would gladly sacrifice for a puff.
When it was time for jungle survival training, where we were dropped individually in remote locations to fend for ourselves and live off the land, more than one of my compatriots smuggled Snickers bars to keep from starving. I smuggled in a pack of Marlboro, carefully implanted into my First Aid Dressing kit with near-surgical precision to keep from getting discovered.
“I could probably catch a fish or two, or find some edible plant roots,” I reasoned. “But what are the odds I could find a tobacco plant I could roll up and smoke?”
For years, cigarettes were my closest companions: I never left home without them; no matter if I was sad, or happy, or tired, or high, or just bored, there was always a reason to break one out of the box and light up.
Long-haul flights were my greatest fear. On a 16-hour journey to Barcelona via London, I found myself shivering from nicotine withdrawal. My face went numb, my fingers were tingling, and I could not keep awake even to enjoy the delicious inflight fare.
You could imagine my horror as I stumbled off the plane in transit, desperate to rekindle the fire of my relationship with my best friends, only to discover that London Heathrow Airport was a smoke-free facility.
Let me be clear: I did not smoke because it was cool. And I would never encourage anyone to pick up the habit. If you do not smoke, you should not start. Never mind that I smelled like an ashtray (I could hardly smell anyway, years of smoking a pack or two a day had decimated my olfactory senses), had yellowed teeth and fingers, and alternated between coughing and clearing my throat every 15 seconds.
I smoked for one simple reason: I was dependent on it. I was – and still am – a nicotine addict.
Getting Through the Vape Tape
At the nagging of the G (that’s Girlfriend, not Government), I quit smoking last year. But the nicotine withdrawal proved too much to handle, and I picked up vaping.
“What’s the damn difference?” you ask, rolling your eyes.
Well, a whole lot.
Electronic cigarettes (or vapourisers, as they are commonly known), typically use a battery-operated mod which fires up an atomiser unit. E-liquid – commonly comprising propylene glycol, glycerin, nicotine, and assorted flavourings – is heated by the atomiser to release a nicotine-laced vapour that is inhaled into the lungs, not unlike with conventional cigarettes.
But without the burning as with conventional cigarettes, there is no carbon monoxide and tar. The absence of burning also means there is no choking smell of smoke, which clings to your clothes and hair. It also reduces the number of cancer-causing carcinogens and toxic chemicals that are released through burning in a cigarette. Because that is just science.
But let me be clear: vaping is certainly neither healthy nor harm-free. Nicotine is still inhaled through e-cigarettes, potentially causing addiction and vascular damage, among other side effects and risks.
And there are insufficient studies to determine the possible adverse effects vaping of chemicals such as propylene glycol has on health, let alone other unknown chemicals that could be added by e-liquid manufacturers because of a lack of government regulation.
Indeed, technological and medical advances have brought the tobacco industry to a crossroad.
Stubbing Out Conventional Cigarettes
According to media reports, the global e-cigarette market is expected to be worth some US$3.5 billion by 2015.
E-cigarette use among American high school students jumped almost tenfold from 2011-2014. Over the same period, the proportion of high schoolers who reported smoking cigarettes dropped from 15.8 per cent to 9.2 per cent, US-based public health institute Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in April.
Already, Big Tobacco has made its entry into the fast-growing e-cigarette market.
Key vendors in the e-cigarette currently include tobacco giants Altria Group, British American Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco Group, and Reynolds American.
At the same time, the tobacco industry is moving towards the creation of alternative products that purport to be less harmful than conventional cigarettes.
Philip Morris International (PMI), for example, recently launched in Milan and Nagoya a new type of cigarette, which heats tobacco rather than burning it. According to PMI’s team of research scientists, such heat-not-burn cigarettes could deliver fewer toxins than conventional sticks and more pleasure than mere vapour found in e-cigarettes.
But regardless of the science and possibility of reduced health risks for smokers, e-cigarettes and other “cancer stick” alternatives will be stubbed out following Singapore’s announced blanket ban on emerging tobacco products from Dec 15, 2015.
In the face of possible reduced risk alternatives, the Republic’s impending emerging tobacco products ban is troubling. What is needed is not an outright ban, but stringent scientific testing and improved regulation put in place to ensure, for instance, that youths will not be allowed to buy these alternative tobacco products.
And yet, the G (that’s Government, not Girlfriend) has decided go for a blanket ban, and eventually move towards a smoke-free Singapore.
Meanwhile, those who choose to smoke but prefer a less harmful alternative are handed the short end of the stick: quit smoking, or continue smoking cancer-causing cigarettes – and die.