As a child growing up in the beautiful county of Yorkshire in England in the 1960s, I was exposed to cigarette smoke early in life. At that time, well over 40 % of people in Britain smoked, so how could anyone avoid knowing a smoker? In my little Yorkshire village it was normal for a child to see his or her parents and neighbours smoking. There was a crisp (the American word is “chip”) factory down the main road going through our village and frequently I saw women who worked there standing outside having a “cigarette break.”
My father smoked moderately, and when I was 6 or 7 years old he’d send me down to the local papershop to buy him a Daily Express and “Ten Benson and Hedges.” If he was feeling particularly generous, he’d buy twenty of the “B and H,” as I called them, instead of ten, and I might, if I was lucky, get a particularly luxurious bar of chocolate for doing him the favour.
Sometimes my mother, who was not a smoker and hated the smell and filth of cigarettes, would take me out with her to a church bingo evening and there I would suffer in silence as I breathed in the puffed-out smoke of other bingo players there. Even one of the priests who called out the numbers smoked, so my reasoning was that it can’t be a bad thing to smoke. After an hour of bingo night, my eyes were sore, my chest was burning and my clothes stunk of tobacco. It wasn’t something I complained about, except to myself, because it was just a normal part of life for a child in those days. Smoking was an adult pastime that we kids just had to deal with.
The same thing happened when I visited my Uncle Bill every Sunday with my twin brother and my father. Uncle Bill didn’t smoke, but his friend, Frank, was a chain smoker and my brother and I would sit there for two or three hours breathing the grey swirling smoke into our developing lungs. Did you know that a child’s lungs are still developing and continue to develop and grow after birth, right until the child is eight years old? Sometimes I was so bored that I’d enjoy creating angels, devils, animals and mystical scenes from the sinister cigarette smoke that swarmed in the room’s air.
I had so many ear infections as a child that I had to see an ear specialist monthly for years. She tried in vain to figure out why I had so many severe ear infections. Later on, as an adult, I discovered that children exposed to cigarette smoke are particularly susceptible to ear infections: I found my answer! The infections were so bad that they damaged my ear ossicles (the small bones in the ear that are involved in hearing) and, despite having three surgeries, I ended up wearing lifelong hearing aids.
One of our neighbours, a lovely lady in her sixties, had lost her husband, my mother told me, due to lung cancer, “because he smoked like a chimney.” I heard of quite a few other neighbours and relatives who had emphysema or had died because of lung cancer, or, as my mother said, “because of that disgusting, smelly tobacco.” If my mother knows that tobacco is so dangerous to people’s health, I thought, how come they can still sell cigarettes in shops and allow me to go and buy them for my dad? It didn’t make sense to me, but I perceived that cigarettes did seem to be rather horrifying things and I believed my mother, but how could they sell tobacco and get away with it?
The most poignant memory, though, that I have of tobacco as a child is that of our next-door neighbour, Mrs W. I knew that Mrs W. was a smoker, and to this day I remember the brand of cigarettes she smoked, because on numerous occasions I had also run an errand for her and gone down to the local shop to buy her 10 or 20 Woodbine cigarettes. Her daughter, Pat, was a tomboy and the best football player in our street. She could out-dribble any boy with a football and her goal-shooting talents were, to me, as good as any Leeds United player. Well, one day Pat came and knocked on our door as I was playing in our front garden. She was tearful, clearly from overwhelming shock and sadness. My mother answered the door. I looked on and listened as she told my mother that her mum had just been diagnosed with lung cancer and the doctor had told her she had only a few months to live. My mother hugged her for half an hour as the two of them cried in each other’s arms. I heard my mother say, “Those horrible, evil, cigarettes killed her! Don’t you ever smoke, will you love? Because if you do, you’ll never be able to get off them, and they’ll kill you, too, sooner or later.”
Mrs W. had, and still has, a special place in my heart and soul. Did you ever have a simple childhood experience that changed your life in a sudden, unexpected and significant way, and that has remained in your memory ever since? Well, about a year prior to this tobacco-related prognosis of certain death for Mrs W., along with the lifelong effects the experience would surely have on her daughter, Mrs W. had given me one of those eye-opening-life-changing experiences that I remember to this day. I had been playing in our garden one day and spotted a ladybird (the American word is ladybug). At the time, I pointed out this bright red bug with black spots on its back to Mrs W. and, in the cruel manner of a six-year-old boy, I said, “Look what I found- shall I kill it?” Mrs W. looked alarmingly at me and, in a calm and caring voice, replied, “Don’t ever do that, Frankie….ladybirds are God’s creatures and you should never harm them…..see how beautiful it is!”
That stunned me and from then on I looked at ladybirds and cruelty and other living creatures, and people, in a different light. When I discovered a few months later that Mrs W. had died- that she “wasted away because her body was riddled with cancer that started in her lungs, caused by years of smoking,” I remembered instantly, with nauseous grief, her profound advice about how we need to respect God’s creatures. It crossed my mind at the time, though: How come the people who sell and make cigarettes didn’t respect Mrs W. and all the other people who were victims of cigarettes, who were also God’s creatures?