“UST IS a smoke-free campus.”

Like many other Thomasian smokers, Accounting junior Ray Anthony Dela Cuesta was stunned upon entering the España gate and reading the sign bearing the above message. For one, he would have to restrain his seeming addiction to smoking. Worse he would have to keep off the habit while on campus, or perhaps quit in the long run.

Awful yet exciting

Dela Cuesta first tasted tobacco at the age of 14. “Peer pressure kasi in high school; I only do puffing pero sobrang nakakahilo na,” recalls the 19-year-old Commerce student who eventually became a chain smoker.

Smoking becomes a habit when a person, out of peer pressure, tries to overcome its downside on the first try for self-assessment, according to Health Service director Dr. William Olalia, the advocate of the no-smoking campaign.

“They would cough incessantly at first, but in order to belong and to become ‘in’ with the crowd; pipilitin nilang matuto regardless of its harmful effects to their health,” Olalia says. The normal mucus of the lungs, the first defense of the body against smoke pollutants, becomes immune to tobacco smoke when it has been severely damaged after one week of continued smoking, adds Olalia.

“It seemed to me that everyone was into it so I didn’t hesitate to join the bandwagon. Initially, I would only ask for sticks from my barkada until later on I was buying Marlboro Reds for myself,” says Dela Cuesta.

Meanwhile, Pharmacy junior Andrew de Ramos confesses that peer influence especially in boarding houses strongly encourages addiction. “Wala namang mawawala kung isang stick lang, tapos yun, sunod-sunod na, ” he said.

Their case may not be extraordinary but it confirms a local study by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute which states that 90 per cent of most smokers start out of curiosity between 13 to 15 years of age. Unfortunately, youngsters are unaware of the risks and dangers posed by starting early. At least one in every three teenage smokers dies or suffers from smoking-related diseases such as cancer, heart ailment, stroke and pulmonary diseases. Approximately 80 per cent are male with nearly 5 per cent in danger of dying.

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Dela Cuesta is just one of the growing number of young people who have begun a lifelong addiction to smoking before they are old enough to fully understand its long-term effects.

Addiction

Nicotine is the drug responsible for making cigarettes addictive. Laboratory tests at the UST Hospital’s (USTH) Center for Respiratory Diseases reveal that nicotine is even more addictive than heroine and cocaine, making every smoker every inch an “addict.”

It only takes less than half a minute of smoking for nicotine to reach the brain. As soon as receptor cells are activated, atherosclerosis occur, wherein deposits at blood vessels tighten and clog due to increased cholesterol and lipids. When nicotine spreads throughout the entire body, the body adapts to a specific nicotine level depending on the average number of sticks consumed daily.

“The intensity of a stimulating or depressing effect of nicotine helps to make it very addictive,” says respiratory therapist Monina Duran from the USTH Center for Pulmonary Medicine (CPM). Smokers try to achieve their daily dose of nicotine to prevent withdrawal symptoms in between cigarettes, she adds. Stress, anxiety and boredom heighten withdrawal symptoms and generally makes quitting difficult.

For Dela Cuesta, it is very unusual if he smokes less than half a pack of cigarettes a day since the minimum number of sticks to maintain his nicotine level is 10 to 12 cigarettes, regardless of the nicotine content of the cigarette. He admits that most of the time, smoking serves as his emotional crutch to problems. He has tried to quit smoking a number of times by sucking on candies, going on a “puff and inhale attitude” where he directs himself to a minimized smoking habit but all to no avail. The last time he was able to go without smoking was for a month until a personal problem drew him back to it.

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To quit or not to quit?

Quitting certainly requires strong decisiveness on the part of the smoker. But is it enough? Even with scientific and clinical tests to back up a smoker’s quest for a change of heart, not even half of the patients who went through a program designed by the Smoking Cessation Unit of the USTH – CPM, done for six consecutive weeks, show promise of success.

Although Zyban, a drug that decreases the side effects of withdrawal, was widely available in drugstores before, its high price triggered its own death in the Philippine market.

According to Duran, most of their successful clients are the smokers who just happen to see their posters in the USTH. Patients referred by family physicians or brought in by friends usually end up getting back into the habit for no apparent reason. In most cases, quitting through self-initiative is triggered by being afflicted with smoke-induced/related diseases and the fear of dying from it.

Still, many smokers cannot do away with their dependence even as more than 20,000 smoking-related deaths occur every year in the Philippines alone.

In a survey by the World Health Organization (WHO) conducted among 3,000 Filipino adolescents, 70 per cent of those who smoked admitted that the habit has affected their health. More than half, or 55 per cent, noticed that they would tire more easily in various activities. Almost half, or 44 per cent, would have frequent cough.

Playing safe?

Studies show that 85 per cent of the total tobacco smoke produced by the mainstream smoker puts non-smokers at an even greater risk. Environmental tobacco smoke (ETS)—the combined smoke that drifts from the end of a lit cigarette and the exhaled smoke by the smoker —contains more tar, nicotine, carbon monoxide, benzene, ammonia and other chemicals than the 15 per cent inhaled by the smoker.

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And so smokers formulate an alibi: quitting will only threaten their health even more if they become second-hand smokers. What they don’t realize is that habitual smoking poses greater threats that lead to death. Continued exposure eventually adds up to the severe effect on non-smokers, while a healthy, smoke-free lifestyle is more risk-free.

Smoking areas

Mixed reactions as to whether a smoking area should be designated in every building as an alternative to the smoking ban ran their course among some of the University’s higher officials themselves.

But according to Student Welfare and Development Board (SWDB) Coordinator Zenaida Famorca, UST, being a private University, has the prerogative to set what it deems proper for the greater majority, and in this case, setting up smoking areas was not considered an option.

“We also thought of that at first but we think it would be better if the entire campus becomes smoke-free, because in that manner we will also help smokers quit smoking,” she says, adding that withdrawal symptoms may be lessened while on campus.

With the smoke-free policy enforced, the whole Thomasian community should be safe from the ill effects of smoking, at least while in the University premises. The administration is proud to make UST the first smoke-free university in the country.

But the entire Thomasian community may not be spared from the various ill effects of smoking by banning smoking in the University alone. The initiative to keep off the habit will rise from an unconstrained effort to totally remove it from one’s lifestyle. Smoking may not immediately bring one to one’s grave, but it surely offers a quick and precise shortcut to the grave that every smoker cannot avoid. With reports from Brix Gil M. Bayuga

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