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A journalist’s exhausting battle with tobacco addiction

FILE PHOTO: Tobacco cigarettes

Kampala, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | Tobacco products like cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and smokeless tobacco contain nicotine, a heavily addictive substance that exposes people to the extremely harmful effects of tobacco dependency.

Medical experts say that nicotine causes the release of dopamine, a chemical that affects emotions, movements, sensations of pleasure and motivation areas of the brain. Consuming nicotine is also linked to raised alertness, euphoria, and a sensation of being relaxed. A similar effect reportedly occurs when people take heroin or cocaine.

It is this pleasurable sensation and the high feeling of contentment that drives addiction to tobacco products, making individuals struggle for years to stop the habit, even when they acknowledge that using the products is harmful to their lives.

Records by the World Health Organization indicate that nearly 35 million people across the globe make a serious attempt to quit each year. Unfortunately, most who try to quit on their own relapse, often within a week. This is because the addiction gives them a compulsive need to seek out and use a substance, once initiated.

This is the experience that David Rupiny, a former Journalist endured for years, often relapsing after what to him had appeared like a successful attempt to quit smoking. Rupiny, took his first puff in 1989, during his senior two at St. Aloysius College Nyapea, a habit he traces to peer influence.

Being in school, with no endless stream of financial support, Rupiny says that at a young age, they had to get crafty to maintain their habit in school, often smuggling contraband hidden in well-knit pillows into school and into their dormitories.

During the O ‘level, Rupiny smoked one cigarette every few days. When he continued to A ‘level at Mvara Secondary School and later to Makerere University, the one cigarette every few days turned into at least two every day. He could not imagine not smoking.  The more he smoked, the more tobacco became an essential part of his life and later on a priority, a measure of life.

“By the time I began working, smoking was my number one priority. If I had 1,000 Shillings in my pocket, I would plan to buy cigarettes instead of food. Everything in my life was attached to smoking. I began determining distances to places using the number of cigarettes smoked.”

Rupiny explains that he could measure distance using the number of cigarettes smoked as a determinant.   “If I was going to move from one point to another let us say maybe four minutes or 1.6 kilometres away, instead of using time of distance, I would say it is two cigarettes away.” However, he says his health and societal standing drastically fell, even among his peers. What had once been a necessity, turned into a cause of sham.  The money spent on buying cigarettes left a bottomless pit in his pockets.

After 20 years of smoking and a heart to heart with someone suffering from lung cancer, Rupiny says that he began getting second thoughts about cigarettes, resulting in his first attempt to drop the cigarette.  He says the move surprised him and his contemporaries and for a year, he never held a cigarette, and never felt tempted to take one.

However, his first attempt at quitting smoking ended prematurely when he inhaled second-hand smoke from a puffing neighbour when he travelled to Sweden.  In just two weeks, all his effort to quit was thrown to the wind. He reached out for the cigarette without hesitation, after all, he was trading in familiar territory.

“This time it was worse than before. Before I stopped for a year I was smoking around 60 cigarettes a day. When I started again, I was smoking more than 60 cigarettes. For six months, I smoked as if there was no tomorrow.”

As the saying goes, the third time is the charm.  When he looks back, he says the secret weapons that helped him stop were his persistent employers and nagging wife.

“My boss was on my case. Every time he found me smoking he would pull the cigarette from my mouth and throw it away. He kept looking for me. His persistence with my wife’s nagging helped me stop.”

This year marks ten years since Rupiny quit smoking. Describing his life as healthy with none of the smoke-related diseases like lung cancer, Rupiny now uses his experience as a smoker to discourage others from smoking.

Dr Paul Nyende, a psychologist says that any of the cases that they handle are of addicted people whose addiction begun during school.

“Many of the people that we deal with are adults whose addiction has been building for a long time. Let it be alcohol or narcotics, by the time you can notice someone’s addiction, they have been using tobacco products for a very a while,” Dr Nyende says.

Dr David Basangwa, the Executive Director of Butabiika National Referral Hospital says that the addiction in smokers is very common yet few people are willing to come forward and do something about it.

“More people are willing to leave narcotic drugs like cocaine compared to nicotine or tobacco. People do not believe that tobacco smoking is an addiction and many of them will come and tell you to treat them for alcohol and narcotic drug abuse but leave their tobacco smoking alone.

According to Dr Basangwa, addiction to tobacco or cigarettes is treated in two phases. The first phase consists of health awareness, detoxification and counselling while the second phase looks at preventing relapses, which takes much longer.

“Someone may decide to stop smoking and do so but the will to continue is hard. So many people relapse. They stop for a while and find themselves smoking again. We spend a lot of time on preventing relapse because more than half of the people who try to stop an addiction end up going back.”

Dr Basangwa says that during this time, they emphasize the need of addicts to keep away from triggers like friends who smoke or situations that are likely to stress them and make them crave for a smoke.

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