Slow Death: The Mask of Smoking


by: Apolinario B. Villalobos

            I could have never cared less about this most common vice that plagues the health conscious world today, had it not been for the death of my brother who at the age of a little past sixty decided to face the consequences of his being a chain smoker.  He knew that he would die! He was consuming as many as five packs of cigarettes a day during the later years of his life and although he was diagnosed to be already suffering from emphysema, he persisted with the reason that as he would die anyway, so why not enjoy life to its fullest.  This kind of reason can just come from a person whose brains are heavily clouded with smoke and lungs hardened by nicotine.  What’s worst is that despite his resignation to face the consequences of his act, he was not financially prepared.  And, this eventually affected other people financially.  During his last days, hospital expenses were incurred as well as those for the funeral services – all borne by the relatives who pitched in.

During a birthday party of a friend, I was introduced to the latter’s former classmate. I could not believe that they were classmates however, due to very apparent physical differences.  The friend was almost toothless and with only a very sparse growth of white hair on his balding head, aside from the heavily wrinkled face. While my birthday celebrating friend was just turning thirty eight, his friend looked like he was sixty.  I became curious and tried to know the reason for such difference, so I initiated a conversation on  health since I am a vegetarian. It was a good thing that he volunteered his regrets for having smoked heavily.  Although he was just thirty nine, he admitted that he looked double his age. He was suffering from both emphysema and cancer of the throat which cannot be operated on, hence, he had to go through the tortuous radiation treatment resulting to the gradual dental fallout and hair lose.  He knew his days were numbered.  That was four years ago, and the next time I knew about him, I was told that he finally rested at the age of forty three.

While working with an airline company, the circle of my friends was not limited to company employees but also  contracted ones who did the janitorial and security jobs.  I got interested in particular to the supervisor of the janitorial group due to his diligence and readiness to do errand for the employees.  He barely conversed with others, instead, he would just flash a smile.  Then, I noticed his long absence that took more than a month.  While I was entertaining the thought that he resigned, he showed up one day with sunken face. When I asked him what happened, in a very low almost inaudible and whispered voice that seemed to come from a jar, he told me he got operated on.  This he said with difficulty while his forefinger was pressing his throat where I noticed  some kind of a hole.  It was a stoma, through which he inhaled and exhaled after his larynx was removed.  To verbally communicate, he learned to do the “esophageal speech” by drawing air through the hole and breath out the words. He confessed that during break periods and while on errands he smoked heavily.  Despite his being a contracted employee with no health benefits, the owner of the janitorial agency with which he was connected was kind  enough to pay fifty percent of his hospital expenses while he shouldered the balance that cost him his eight years of savings and a loan from a kind neighbor. That was six years ago.  When our paths crossed again, he has aged a lot and stooping despite his just being forty.  Jobless, his wife supports him and their three children, ages twelve, nine and seven. He stays at home while his wife works for a carinderia on weekdays and does the laundry of neighbors on Saturdays and Sundays.  He admitted to have spent his savings of thirty eight thousand pesos for his hospital bills and medications.

The foregoing are stories on the horrifying effects of smoking that most of us just refuse to recognize. Our hypocrite society is such that while it condemns the vice, nothing is done to stop it because of the revenue it generates.  Just take the “warning: smoking is dangerous to your health” printed on cigarette packs as well as its mention after a cigarette ad has been flashed on TV screen. What is the use of such warning if production of the stuff is not stopped.  What is not fair is that even those who do not smoke get affected as “passive smokers” because of the smoke from smokers in closed areas, public transportation and even while strolling in parks and pedestrian lanes.  Lately, it has been found that even unborn babies become affected by smoking mothers who are conceiving them.  Despite the law now that forbids smoking in public places, this is not strictly followed.

Even a single stick of cigarette is dangerous, even those low-nicotine low-tar brands that are flooding the market lately. Not even if one uses a tar guard.  Take note, too, that since manufacturers have reduced the tar and nicotine in some brands, nothing is printed on the packs as to the ingredients used to enhance their flavor and fragrance to make up for the two reduced elements.

Chemicals that act as humectants are used for the workability of aged tobacco as well as in keeping cigarettes fresh.  Some of these are glycerol and glycols. As early as 1979, the U.S. Surgeon Report stated that: “Glycols are suspected to influence the smoker’s risk of  bladder cancer.”  On the other hand, when burned, glycerol is transformed into a substance called  acrolein “which suppresses the action of microscopic cilia that force irritants from the lungs.”  With the cilia immobilized, the smoker becomes susceptible to chronic bronchitis  and increased emphysema with the lungs open to attacks by toxins and carcinogens.

Those are the chemicals. And, how about the synthetic flavors and fragrances that are added to compensate for the reduced tar and nicotine? Could they be more hazardous? These are the questions that manufacturers should answer.  Or why can’t they just print on the packs the “ingredients” that they use in manufacturing their products?

Meanwhile, with the hazard of smoking already a known fact that one need not be a degree holder to understand it, something must be done to even just minimize it, especially, for the sake of the non-smokers who eventually become “passive smokers” due to their inevitable exposure. We have anti-smoking laws, but are they properly imposed?