Growing up in a Tobacco-Filled World

smoked my first cigarette when I was 10 years old. It seemed like a normal thing to do. I wrapped tape around the end of one of my father’s non-filter cigarettes so I wouldn’t have to spit out the bits of tobacco that fell from the tip when it became moistened by my mouth.

Actually, given what we now know about second hand smoke, you could say that I was a smoker from birth. My father smoked three packs a day, so there was no escaping it. I remember breathing in the clouds of sticky smoke that enveloped our small apartment and took up residency in my lungs, manifesting itself as asthma.

Ann Marie Rakovic and her dad.

My mother was a waitress and my father a short-order cook and bartender. Back then, there were no smoke-free ordinances in public places or promotion of smoke-free homesSmoking was universally acceptable. Restaurants, bars, movie theaters, planes, offices, and even hospitals allowed it, and metal or glass ashtrays were part of every interior.

When I was 13 my father was diagnosed with throat cancer. Eventually, the left side of his jaw and larynx were surgically removed and he breathed solely through a mucus-filled stoma in his throat, the only airway to a permanent tracheostomy. Cancer took its toll on his body and within five years he was dead. One of the last times he was able to walk was at my high school graduation, by which time I had my own raging pack-a-day habit. At 18, I wheezed when I breathed and cried myself to sleep, desperately wishing I could wake up without craving a cigarette. Eventually, I did quit unassisted but I still suffer from asthma and shallow lung capacity and expect that I will the rest of my life.

In 2002, I became the director of JSI’s Tristate Tobacco Resource Centers of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, a large state of the art tobacco treatment, community education and health systems change project. Our team was committed to ending the tobacco dependence epidemic, and I knew first-hand how difficult that was going to be. In 2017, JSI’s talented and steadfast professionals are still working on tobacco-related education, prevention, treatment, health promotion, and evaluation initiatives given 40 million adults in the US continue to smoke and nearly half a million die each year.

This year on November 16th, I urge you to support The Great American Smokeout and share these resources with family, friends, and colleagues. Together, we can work to end tobacco consumption for one and for all.

*This post was originally published on November 16, 2017, on the JSI Medium page.

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