If you have visited this blog before you may have read about my Mom, a lifetime non smoker who was suffering from lung cancer. Sadly but mercifully she died on November 13th, after many many months of suffering.
Some of my most poignant childhood memories are of my Mom playing the piano and singing late at night after we kids were in bed - something she would particularly do if she was sad. She and I have always sung together - admittedly not very professionally - but always from our hearts. Shortly after she was diagnosed, my son set up his computer in a hotel room and made a recording of the three of us singing a few songs. Mom asked to have two of them played at her memorial service. When They Ring Those Golden Bells was one of them. Click the arrow at the bottom of this post to listen.
Mom, Dad, and I spoke several times about the likelihood that Mom's lung cancer was caused by the heavy exposure to second hand smoke she experienced for most of her adult life.
Smoking and the tobacco industry were completely normalized during my youth and early adulthood. People smoked everywhere - in stores, banks, doctor's offices, hospitals, university classrooms and lecture halls. Non smokers were the uncool weird ones in those days - particularly if they were men. The idea that second hand smoke could have any negative impact was considered ridiculous. The very rare people who requested non smoking in their homes or workplaces were considered rude fanatics. Anti-tobacco activists, so rare as to be basically unheard of, were completely and totally off the wall. Although we were not aware of it at the time, I have come to learn that these attitudes were the direct result of tobacco industry actions.
I therefore do not blame family members or friends, including myself, who smoked around my Mom, and neither did she. I do blame the tobacco industry, however, for deliberate, complex, historical, ongoing, mercenary obfuscation - to a level that boggles the mind given that the tobacco industry is and has been made up of actual human beings... who are themselves mortal and who presumably cherish loved ones themselves.To study the history of the tobacco industry ultimately leads one to seriously contemplate evil and how it comes to exist. To me it seems to creep up, one lie, one manipulation at a time - ultimately becoming systematized and interwoven into every aspect of life (as is the case with the tobacco industry, which has used and negatively impacted every possible human system for its own gains. Impacted systems include physical, psychological, sociological, political, legal, financial, medical, environmental, and academic ones).
Being on the "right" of the political spectrum, my parents were initially resistant to talk of tobacco industry responsibility for tobacco related illnesses. (Personally I hate the political terms 'right' and 'left', seeing them as unnecessarily divisive. I much prefer the terms 'right' and 'wrong' in that context).
Mom and Dad certainly never went so far as to read such texts as 'The Cigarette Century' by Allan Brandt or 'The Golden Holocaust' by Robert Proctor (both of whom are amazingly learned medical and tobacco historians and heroes of mine) but they did slowly recognize that my need to talk about the role of the tobacco industry was not an indictment of smoking family members but rather of tobacco industry behaviour that is deeply deserving of negative judgement and censure.
It is a crazy truth that people suffering from the effects of the tobacco industry are often offended by hearing anti-tobacco-industry talk. The affected people I refer to span the gamut from those experiencing tobacco related illnesses, to the people who love them, and to all of society in general, who ultimately pay the medical costs incurred by the many preventable, non communicable, tobacco related illnesses suffered by millions every year. I have come to expect this knee jerk response, which is basically something like "Yeah yeah yeah. We know smoking is bad for you. Now let's move on to another topic." This response is an illustration of the power the tobacco industry has held to almost invisibly shape and manipulate public opinion on matters related to them.
Most people like to think that we as individuals are free to make our own decisions, but who is really responsible for the almost 6 million annual deaths wordwide from tobacco related illnesses? Does the responsibility lie with the tobacco industry or with the people who use and become addicted to their products.....particularly given that almost all have inadvertently become addicted to tobacco products before reaching adulthood? It is demonstrable that most kids using tobacco products during their school years think they are indulging temporarily and don't expect that they will continue to do so as adults. I still remember the day, at age 14, having "fooled around" with smoking for a few years, that I decided on the way to school one morning that I wasn't going to smoke anymore. It was a surprising and very chilling feeling to realize that I HAD to have a cigarette.
Such has been the power of the tobacco industry to continually addict new customers (almost always children when viewed from a legal perspective, making nicotine dependence almost always a chronic, relapsing, pediatric condition.... for which treatment tends to not be adequately forthcoming because the tobacco industry has ensured that the blame tends to be placed on the victim).
Ultimately Mom expressed pride in the work that I do as a nurse to help others quit smoking and in my efforts to enlighten people about the role of the tobacco industry in so much needless human suffering. She gave me her blessing to use her story - which was and is very important to me given that I can't stop learning and thinking about the tobacco industry in our world and that she so personally and closely manifested its harms.
Mom, a very energetic woman and non smoker, loved living and expressed many times that she wished to live to age 93, like her Mother did. She was lucky enough to live to 82 - many more years than some who have suffered from tobacco related illnesses - but, had she not lived in such a heavy second hand smoke environment, she would likely have had her wish. I have been repeatedly told by family members that her death at 82 "is not a tragedy," and, while I agree that she led a good life, and that the death of a younger person would be more tragic, I know that to her personally it was often perceived as tragic that she had to suffer so much and to die early from a preventible illness.
On behalf of my much loved mother and all others who have suffered and who will suffer much agony and early death from tobacco related illnesses, I feel a need to say that it is wrong that the tobacco industry profits so massively from all this human pain. It is also deeply wrong that tobacco users suffering from lung cancer or other tobacco related illnesses be blamed, ever, for what they are going through. Sadly people ARE blamed, by themselves and others, and are told they "brought it on themselves" far too often, even in health care settings. This plays directly into the hands of the tobacco industry, who love to couch the issue in terms of freedom to choose to smoke (which of course ignores the power of addiction to a product that is carefully engineered for maximum speed and longevity of addiction). As a Registered Nurse myself I beg other health care personnel to reconsider such harsh judgements and treat all your patients with the fainess and compassion you would wish for yourself or loved ones during difficult times.
We humans have so much potential for beauty and creativity, qualities sorely needed right now during this particular time in the life of the earth, and yet we have allowed this most destructive industry to thrive obscenely all over the globe. The tobacco industry (5 main companies worldwide) takes advantage of the young, the poor, the ignorant, the unconfident, the mentally ill, and the disadvantaged wherever they touch. I fervently wish, in my mother's memory, that we will one day change to a world that above all values and invests in human beauty and creativity, abhorring and starving any business whose product is human death and destruction.
Rest in Peace Mom, and thank-you for allowing me to tell your story.
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