Yesterday was Antismoking Day, and I remember with not too great fondness of the times when we would smoke in the newsroom, and on airline flights.
Newspaper offices in the 1980s were not like the insurance company offices of today where the silence is deafening, with people staring silently at their screens. There was the cacophony of the clatter and clanging of the huge typewriters and a dense pall of white smoke hanging over the heads of journos.
When the deadline inched nearer to file the story, the stress became heart-pounding but still the cigarette would be held tightly in the web of the fingers.
When we went home for the annual vacations the airline counter guy would ask, “smoking or non-smoking”, as if it made any difference where you sit in a metal tube full of smokers. But my wife would quickly say, “non-smoking”, and it would be a nail-biting three-hour trip for me, who was addicted to tobacco.
Longing in my lungs
When I looked back with longing in my lungs, the first thing one saw as soon as the seat belts signs went off, was everyone firing up their lighters and the poor stewardess walking through the dense smoke, spoiling her chick image and the smoke smelling up her uniform.
Just as anti-maskers today, smokers were very voluble and wanted their freedom to do what they wish and saw anti-smokers as evil who were planning to destroy lives by destroying the restaurants business.
Cigarettes then were incredibly cheap compared to the prices in Europe and everyone would buy stacks of cartons to gift to their friends and relatives.
At that time cigarette packs did not have the revolting pictures of people suffering from some serious after effects of smoking, as smoking was the thing to do because there was no other entertainment, except for World Wresting Entertainment on TV, and so you saw people, unwrapping a big wad of gum, putting it in their mouth and smoking and chewing gum at the same time.
Shisha smoking wasn’t such a rage in Jeddah as no expatriate had yet discovered it, but it was big when I was in Dubai in the 2000s.
Fighting a huge battle
My contact in the health ministry was a lady doctor who headed the antismoking unit and she was fighting a huge battle trying to get the revolting pictures on cigarette packs increased so that it covered the whole pack, and trying to increase the tax on cigarettes.
There was a concerted effort to stop smoking in all government offices and even in open areas such as beaches where families and kids would frequent, and shisha shops out of the residential areas to the outskirts of the city.
I smoked a shisha once and it had an apple flavour and the smoke going through water did not do any filtering, but just cooled the smoke. There are also herbal shishas but again they don’t do anything for your health.
Shisha cafés started in Europe and smokers said banning them would send teenagers to pubs and other places more dangerous than smoking joints.
But it was the kids who finally halted the smoking rage, calling it disgusting and uncool.
I stopped smoking when I thought I had a heart attack and had to walk to the ambulance in my flip-flop feet through an inch deep snow in Canada.
It turned out to be acidity and I got talked to by a doctor for smoking, but what made me stop finally was the good scare.
Mahmood Saberi is a storyteller and blogger based in Bengaluru, India. Twitter: @mahmood_saberi