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Never too late to kick the smoking habit

Once a smoker quits, the health benefits will kick in, no matter how long he has been smoking

It has recently become a lot more inconvenient to be a smoker in Singapore.

Since the beginning of this month, the ban on smoking was extended to reservoirs and more than 400 parks, including those in private and public housing estates.

With the dwindling number of public places to light up, giving up smoking may be a practical and certainly healthy option.

Doctors say that there are many physical benefits to quitting smoking.

And it does not matter how old you are or how long you have been smoking, the benefits kick in once you quit.

WAKE-UP CALL

My son said he was worried I'd pass on my addiction to him. That was a wake-up call, so I decided to quit for my family.

RETIREE KOH YEOW HUA, 63, a smoker of 44 years who quit when he noticed that his son would shut the bedroom door every time he smoked.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Health, about one in 10 Singaporeans in their 50s is a smoker. This also applies to those in their 60s.

One example is Mr Teo Lay Lee, who took his first puff at the age of 15, when he was a hawker. Now 68 years old and working as a driver, he can finally say he is smoke-free.

He said he had tried to quit several times over the years, but always relapsed due to peer pressure.

In 2013, he visited a doctor as he was coughing frequently and feeling out of breath.

His doctor, Dr June Tan of NTUC Health’s Unity Family Medicine Clinic, recommended that he quit smoking – a suggestion that surprised Mr Teo, who said that previous doctors did not talk to him about his smoking habit.

Dr Tan explained the negative consequences of smoking to him, such as needing more inhalers to help him breathe.

She also roped in his daughter and grandson to help him quit. It worked.

Mr Teo, who has not smoked in more than a year, said his health has improved. He no longer has breathing difficulties or frequent coughing.

His resolve is shared by 63-yearold retiree Koh Yeow Hua, who has been smoke-free for more than six months.

A smoker of 44 years, he initially hated the idea of smoking. But he picked up the habit under peer pressure during national service.

Mr Koh said: “My friends would drink, smoke and gamble every day, so smoking felt natural to me. I never thought about quitting.”

The turning point came in 2011 when he noticed that his son would shut the bedroom door every time Mr Koh smoked in the living room.

“My son said he was worried I’d pass on my addiction to him. That was a wake-up call, so I decided to quit for my family.”

He also realised that smoking was costing him a fortune. At the height of his addiction, he smoked at least two packs a day, costing about $30.

Although he initially tried nicotine replacement therapy, Mr Koh decided that he could save money by not depending on medication.

He decided to wean himself off cigarettes through his own willpower. It took him five years of gradually cutting down on cigarettes to finally quit for good.

He did this by first going to shopping malls more regularly, where smoking is not allowed.

Between shopping and people watching, he did not have time to think about picking up a cigarette.

He also started exercising regularly, walking an average of 10,000 steps a day, four to five times a week. He once walked from Hougang to Serangoon. “The more you sweat, the less you feel like smoking,” he said.

He also avoided close interactions with friends who smoked, so that he would not be enticed.

After he began his exercise routine, he got to know more health-conscious people.

He now invites some of his smoker friends to exercise with him, encouraging them to take care of their health.

He said: “People say that smoking raises your spirits. In reality, all it does is get you addicted.”

HEALTH RISKS

Dr Tan said the risk of lung cancer associated with smoking increases with the number of cigarettes smoked daily and overall smoking duration.

Quitting reduces the risk of lung cancer, but the extent to which it does differs, depending on factors such as age, sex, genetic predisposition, environmental exposure and smoking habits.

However, not all senior citizens are enthusiastic about quitting.

One of the greatest challenges faced by family physicians is addressing the mindset the elderly have towards smoking, said Dr Tan.

Many elderly smokers have the misconception that they may suffer from medical problems if they quit smoking after being smokers for decades, she said.

It is important that family doctors address these concerns before moving on to smoking cessation plans.

Citing a fact sheet from the World Health Organisation, Dr Tan said it takes only three days of quitting for a person’s breathing and energy level to improve, and just three months for lung functions to improve significantly.

A 2011 study, conducted by researchers from the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore, on smoking cessation and mortality among middle-aged and elderly Chinese in Singapore, found that a smoker’s chances of dying can be reduced within five years of quitting the habit.

According to the study, the risk of ex-smokers developing lung cancer dropped by at least 24 per cent after they quit, even if they had quit for fewer than five years.

Dr Tan added that smoking is not just linked to increased lung cancer risk, but also other health risks such as cardiovascular diseases, chronic obstructive lung disease and cancers of other organs.

It also impacts financial health and causes a strain on relationships, which can adversely affect mental and physical well-being.

Dr James Cheong, a general practitioner from Unity Family Medicine Clinic, said that it is never too late to quit “as each day without cigarettes can add to positive health outcomes”.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 14, 2016, with the headline 'Never too late to kick the habit'. Print Edition | Subscribe