'Do you mind if I smoke?' is a phrase you simply don't hear in New Zealand today. The reason is that in our clean, green anti-smoking world, no smoker would put their head above the fox hole they're hiding in and risk having it blown off.
Legislation passed in 2000 made smoking illegal in New Zealand's restaurants, pubs and bars, part of an international trend that's pleasing non smokers the world over and for very good reason. Who wants to inhale smoke from other people's cigarettes? Who wants to go home after an evening out reeking of the bi-product of someone else's life threatening habit? The answer is obviously no one. Not even me and I smoke but don't tell anyone. It's my dirty little secret. Worse still is that I am a parent.
Fessing up to this socially unacceptable and highly irresponsible practice means that I've now outed myself after years of doing my best to hide the truth from those who know me. You might think that's impossible but I've been fairly successful. Although occasionally someone gets a whiff of it, most of the time I'm super careful to avoid that happening.
It requires so much dedication that it's hard to explain why I bother. Why don't I just give up? Obviously I'm addicted to it and it's not just the nicotine. After much thought and spooky monitoring of my own behaviour, the fact is that I'm addicted to something far more difficult to give up than just nicotine.
Physically I can do without cigarettes. I know this because I stop smoking from time to time. The first few days are fine. I get a bit grumpy and feel the odd urge but it's not until the end of the second week I really start to struggle. I can even get through that stage if I try. What I crave though, and what eventually brings me back to smoking cigarettes again, is actually the peace it gives me.
Strange though it sounds, smoking pacifies me. Stranger still when you consider it actually raises the heart rate and blood pressure. However, the sense of peace I experience comes from taking myself away to a quiet place to be on my own. When I do it, I feel as though I'm creating a little gap in time for myself. As if the rest of life is paused, on hold till I decide I want to go back to it.
Admittedly, depending on my mood it also fulfils my adolescent need to rebel. I started smoking at 14 years old and now that I'm almost 40 I've been at it for too long. It began with me wanting to look cool when all the other kids were doing it. But unlike my sisters and my school friends who grew up and gave up, with me it stuck. In a way it stuck by me, giving me something to do while I was processed all the things I didn't like about growing up, then about early adulthood, later adulthood and today even parenthood.
During any crisis, no matter how long it's been since I last smoked, a cigarette is the first thing I reach for. With my arms folded over my chest and a cigarette between my fingers, I can cope with just about anything. The act of sucking in my breath will stem the flow of my tears and quell my rage. What it really does is suppress my feelings but that's exactly what I want, control over my emotions.
These days I never smoke in public, although I did for years when it was acceptable to do so. If I tried to smoke in public now I'd feel uncomfortable because I'd know that people would see me for what I am: a smoker. Then they'd judge me for it. I'd be one of those idiots, a loser, there's any number of names to choose from, none of them complimentary. 'Don't you know that'll kill you?' I can hear them say.
You'd have to have been abandoned at birth and raised by wolves to not know that smoking kills. Every packet of cigarettes carries a terrifying message designed to dissuade the smoker from buying cigarettes, but we still do it, and why is that? New Zealand is going to introduce an additional tactic - photographs printed onto cigarette packets showing oral cancers and body parts that have been ravaged by smoking-related cancers.
Even now if the man in the corner shop hands over a packet with 'Smoking Kills' written on it, I ask him to look for something of a low-tar equivalent 'Smoking causes heart disease' for instance or 'Smoking endangers your health'. Bizarrely they're easier to take than 'Smoking causes lung cancer' the worst message of them all.
Of course not everyone is as secretive about their smoking habit as I am. Some people actually remove themselves from their smoke-free offices and go outside to smoke on the street in full view of passers by. I've heard that some visitors to New Zealand, unaware of the non-smoking laws, actually mistake these little congregations as sex workers.
Governments can legislate against smoking in public, but they still collect enormous revenues from the sale of cigarettes. I bet that the amount of revenue gathered exceeds what our government contributes to funding the health system. So although smoking related illnesses cost every country's health system, smokers are virtually self funding.
Recently the focus of our national consciousness has turned towards the increase of obesity among our children. Apparently this is the new public enemy endangering the health of upcoming generations. It seems that as a nation of dairy product consumers, particularly butter, we're turning into a bunch of fat bloaters whose children are developing Type II diabetes. This condition used to be known as adult on-set diabetes only now it's not just adults who are getting it.
Sadly, as a person with a BMI of over 25 I have to put my hand up to that weakness as well. Yes, I like butter. Does this make me a social outcast? Almost. Should I start hiding that as well? The idea is too exhausting. Ok, so I've gained some weight since becoming a mother. No excuses, it's my fault entirely. I find it hard to resist nibbling on the yummy kiddie leftovers. But I've noticed my friends making the odd comment about my size. Nothing nasty, just a little remark here and there, mostly from the men, that leave me in no doubt that they think I need to cut down.
And they're right. I do. I'm a size 14 and that's at least one dress size more than I should be. I used to be a size 12 and I'm pretty sure the dress size measurement system has grown so today's size 12 is probably what used to constitute a size 10.
If I'm honest I'd love to ditch the smoking habit and lose a couple of stone. Only in giving up smoking my weight will increase - at least for a while - until I get myself under control. That prospect is almost enough to put me off even trying.
Lucky though we are to live beside the beach, sometimes it's a mixed blessing. I find that having to don swimwear and chat to the neighbours leaves a girl feeling exposed on too many fronts. Imagine if I did it with a cigarette in my hand, well that could solve my problem because I'm almost certain they wouldn't want to talk to me.
I do have a choice. I could abandon Lycra and instead buy myself a burka. Hell, I might even manage to smoke secretly in public beneath it. But no, with summer just around the corner it's time to put my shoulder to the grindstone, and address my smoking/eating, yet again.
Now, I might just go off and have a cigarette while I plan how I'm going to do it.
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