Monday, 29 January 2018

Sensory Enhancement Or Addiction?

Presently fighting off the effects of a severe cold, combined with a bad bout of Winter Blues, and worry over the imminent loss of my beloved pet Border Collie, I am sleeping poorly at present. That means my having too much time to ponder the meaning of life, the universe and everything - especially in the early hours of the morning when all is quiet. As the thoughts flow, I reach from time to time for my electronic cigarette, inhaling its familiar vapour tinged with my current favourite flavour called Winter Nip. Its menthol fumes, reminiscent of many familiar cough sweets and lozenges, help me to breathe more freely, and a small dose of nicotine helps my thoughts to form more clearly. A little over four years ago I would have instead lit a cigarette. Its smoke would almost certainly not have helped my breathing, but the nicotine would have helped my thought processes in the same way that it had for around fifty years of my life. Yes, nicotine haters, there are benefits to be obtained from nicotine, whether you are comfortable or not with that premise!

Nicotine use (or 'abuse' for those who prefer) has been known for generations to confer a feeling of well-being, to aid cognisance, to enhance creativity, to improve concentration, to relax or to awaken, to provide enjoyment and to dull feelings of anger, resentment or boredom. Perhaps that is why it is has always been particularly popular among the working classes, the artisans, the engineers, the performing arts, the military et cetera. Many of our most famous and illustrious historical figures are recognisable as much by their smoking paraphernalia as by their faces - Winston Churchill, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Albert Einstein, George Burns, Noel Coward, Dylan Thomas and George Orwell are just a few examples. If just a small part of their greatness came from their nicotine consumption, it would be no surprise to people who smoke.

There is a downside, however, to the benefits of nicotine. Not in the nicotine itself, which can be obtained in small amounts from many plants and vegetables considered wholesome and nutritious, but in the delivery method used to quickly and effectively make it available in sufficient quantity to produce the desired effect. Burning the leaves of tobacco plants releases nicotine quickly, and inhaling the smoke leads to rapid absorption of nicotine to the brain. But burning any vegetable matter also releases or produces a great many chemical compounds that are not good for the body. Smokers know this, but accept the other chemicals in order to experience the benefit of nicotine. Never-smokers have no experience, so no possible comprehension, of what nicotine consumption feels like; for them, let me say that it's similar to the first cup of tea or coffee in the morning, to a cold drink of water when you're thirsty, to a glass of wine when you get home from work, to stroking your pet, to sucking a sweet, to tasting chocolate. In other words, it's a pleasurable activity that makes you feel just a little better than you did before. Because it gives you pleasure, you tend to do it again, and again. You could call this repetitive sampling habituation, or if you disapproved of it, you might prefer to use the more contentious word, addiction. A third category of person should be identified at this point - the non-smoker. Non-smokers are not the same as never-smokers. They have tried smoking but have decided that they did not find pleasure in it (making them effectively never-smokers), that the taste of the combustion products was too unpleasant, that the financial cost outweighs the benefit experienced, or they may be scared off by fear of health consequences or the disapproval of others. Whatever their personal reasons, they choose not to repeat or continue the experiment.

On a personal level, I first tried smoking as an eleven-year-old, in a rare outbreak of schoolboy naughtiness. I found it mildly pleasurable but instantly fell foul of official disapproval in the form of an angry schoolmaster. A few months later, I tried it again with a Woodbine 'borrowed' from a relative's temptingly-abandoned pack. It made me ill. I decided that smoking was not for me, and that I would be a non-smoker. That lasted until I started work, where I found that almost everyone else was a smoker, and I was surrounded by a warm envelope of delightful aromas from pipes, cigars, cigarettes and snuff. I tried again, and found to my surprise that I gained pleasure that outweighed the cost (very little in those days!), an ability to improve my concentration, a reward for a job done, a way to relax and simultaneously prepare to work, a way to round off the working day and a way to steel myself for the next working day. I became habituated. My story will be, I am confident, identical to that of, and wholly familiar to, millions of fellow smokers. Non-smokers will understand part of it. Never-smokers will not understand it at all.

I was in those days a keen cyclist, young and fit. I didn't scare myself with thoughts of my mortality. Death, I already knew, was a fact of life; that my span would be "three-score and ten", but that was for much, much later. Now there was life to be lived, so I got on with that task, but smoking and nicotine had become a normal part of it, as natural to me as eating, breathing, sleeping. I was never a chain-smoker, I smoked when it suited me, and abstained when it didn't. Smoking was an integral part of my life, but far from being my reason to live. Nicotine became a crutch when I needed one, but for most of the time it acted to enhance my senses, never dulling them, but constantly sharpening them. Smokers will understand this, but not so never-smokers and all but a few non-smokers.

My first wife was a fellow smoker, and for that reason alone I know how comfortable life can be when shared with such a person. We would share conversation, television, books, music and nicotine with equal pleasure. If we disagreed on any subject, then a quiet conversation over shared cigarettes would usually help resolve the matter, Eventually, however, certain problems were beyond us and the marriage ended, but our friendship has lasted and endured to the present day, nearly fifty years on. We can still meet up and take pleasure in each other's company, and a few shots of nicotine, today. My second wife was a never-smoker and never understood, or accepted, my smoking habit. When financial difficulties arose we found it impossible to work together on a solution as long as I continued to smoke - by now an expensive pastime due to nanny-state 'intervention'. I tried to quit the habit, but it was too deeply ingrained, and I failed regularly. As a result my second marriage also failed, and the lady and myself no longer have any kind of relationship. Smokers will understand. Never-smokers, and most non-smokers, will have no sympathy for me whatever, and will probably feel that this proves an 'addiction' to nicotine. I would argue that it proves no such thing. It comes down to what one perceives as 'normal', and what one feels is 'right'.

Pause for a moment and cross your arms. Look down and note which of your hands has its fingers on view. It matters not whether you are left- or right-handed, but the way you cross your arms is the way that is 'normal' or 'right' for you, and you always cross your arms in that way. Prove it to yourself by uncrossing your arms and crossing them again, but in the opposite alignment. It is not so easy, is it? It requires a little thought, and it feels 'wrong'. And it will always feel wrong, because you are doing something that is not normal for you. Similarly, link your fingers. Ignore the position of your thumbs, but note which of your index fingers is uppermost. Unlink your fingers and try to link them again so that the other index finger is uppermost. Again you will find that one configuration is a little easier and more natural for you. That is what is normal for you, and it is very difficult to change, for that is the way you have always done it. Is it a matter of 'addiction'? Of course not! Is it a 'bad habit'? Of course it isn't! It's just the way you do things, and doing things differently will always feel 'wrong' to you.

Now try to imagine that someone has decided that your way of performing these actions is indeed a bad habit. Imagine that research suggests that people who cross their arms L/R (or R/L) are found to be x per cent more likely to contract certain diseases than those who do not. The death toll from those diseases is horrendous, as is the cost of treatment to the world's medical services. Nobody knows what causes the diseases, but there is a clear link. Something Must Be Done, goes up the cry. Attempts are made by governments to encourage people with the bad habit to change their behaviour; a small few succeed but most fail because it feels unnatural, and they continue to revert to what is their normal pattern of behaviour. Those with the 'right' habit, of course, blame the others for their intransigence, call them addicts, have no sympathy,  have no comprehension of their plight, support action against them and suggest they should pay extra taxes to cover treatment costs. At the same time, both groups continue to contract the same diseases, require treatment and die at the same rates as before.

All smokers will be familiar with this scenario and will understand what I am saying. Some non-smokers may understand, and may even sympathise. Never-smokers are incapable of understanding any of it, and will think it was written under the influence of some mind-altering drug as potent and addictive as heroin!

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