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BOB WAKEHAM: Back before smoking could kill you

Smoking always looked cool in the old days. Of course, as Bob Wakeham writes, you didn’t really realize then it could kill you. —
Smoking always looked cool in the old days. Of course, as Bob Wakeham writes, you didn’t really realize then it could kill you. — 123RF Stock Photo

It’s mighty difficult to keep a handle on all the ills of the world — as, of course, I’ve always tried to do, with a combination of spiritual guidance and sincere doggedness — when even the terminology becomes foreign.

Just this past week, I heard tell that an activity called “vaping,” a word totally unfamiliar to my aging brain cells, was an epidemic, of all grave matters, and taking place right here in our own smiling land.

“It’s a real crisis,” a spokesman for the Newfoundland and Labrador Alliance for Control of Tobacco was quoted as saying in The Telegram. “It’s a real epidemic.”

Pretty scary stuff.

Now, I usually associate the term epidemic with deadly diseases like smallpox or AIDS or polio.

(I’m old enough to recall the opening of school being delayed several months at some point in the ’50s because of the polio scare; it was a move, though, that as far as my Gander buddies and I were concerned, only extended our summer vacation, more time to don our cowboy hats and battle the Indians in the high grass, an area where the local Tim Hortons now sits; we were delightfully oblivious to the deadly repercussions of a polio outbreak).

Anyway, I felt an obligation to read up on this epidemic ravaging our youth, and subsequently discovered that thousands of Newfoundland youngsters are apparently using those electronic cigarettes to breathe in smoke spiked with a sugary flavour of one sort or another.

Now, obviously, I’m ignorant of the pleasures of vaping or its scourge-like potential, but those stories in the local media about this phenomenon did provoke recollections of my own history with the real stuff, the evil cigarette, the fag, the cancer stick.

I do believe it was one of my cousins, Billy Penton, who introduced me to smoking while I was on a glorious, months-long visit to his home in Grand Falls, although he would probably argue that it was his evil cousin who led the two us astray.

We were both about 15 years old when we took that first puff, and continued to smoke, and walk with an adult swagger, for the entire summer.

It was just downright cool, and perhaps we had been influenced by some of the cigarette advertisements on radio and television that made smoking appear very attractive, even glamourous, ads accompanied by innocent-sounding, easily remembered jingles:

“Smoke Du Maurier
for real smoking pleasure,
Du Maurier, the cigarette of good taste.
A mild cigarette,
With the best filter yet,
That’s why the trend today,
Is to Du Maurier.”

I’ll bet there’s more of than just a few of you out their in Readership Land this weekend, the geriatric set in particular, humming along to those simple, near wholesome words of a gullible past.

When I returned home from that summer of smoking in Grand Falls, I confessed (being the good little Catholic I then was) to my parents that I had committed sin with Export A — the cigarette of choice, I do believe, for the inhaling cousins. Surprisingly, Mom and Dad did not rant and roar. Instead, they had a private discussion on the matter, a family conference, and then informed me, their eldest, that they’d prefer I not smoke, but if that was the route I was taking, I should not be sneaky about it, that I should smoke in the open. In other words, I had their permission.

“But you’ll have to buy your own,” my ever pragmatic and money-conscious father added.

But I told my parents that it was just a summertime experiment, and that I had quit. I’m sure my parents, heavy smokers themselves back then, were relieved.

A few years later, though, while going to college in North Dakota, I started to smoke again, this time with devout seriousness. (It didn’t help that, being a huge Western fan, I was enamoured with those Marlboro ads on television, the panoramic shot of the macho cowboy riding in slow motion across the plains, the stirring music from the movie “The Magnificent Seven” in the background.) The warnings about the dangers of smoking, then quite prevalent, meant nothing. I was too young to contemplate mortality.

And I smoked for the next 20 years before finally quitting (with the help of a program offered by the local Lung Association) what was then a three-pack-a-day habit.

Believe it or not, there are times all these decades later when I still have a brief craving for a smoke, after watching, for instance, a movie or a television series set in the ’50s, where just about every soul seems to be puffing (and enjoying) a cigarette.

Although I must say there was nothing of particular appeal or enticement about those recent photographs of young people “vaping,” sucking on a gadget that resembles a tin whistle, engulfed in smoke.

But it obviously has an appeal for Newfoundland young people.

And no amount of scare tactics will reduce the numbers.

Nor will my retroactive assessment here that smoking was a dirty, expensive, unhealthy habit when I was at it.

“Ah, shut up, Skipper,” the young vapers might say. “You’re a hypocrite. This is our time. Go have a nap.”

We didn’t listen. And they probably won’t.

Recent columns by this author

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BOB WAKEHAM: Let me take you to the movies

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at

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