The government has announced that it intends to raise the minimum age for smoking, from 18 to 21.

“The Ministry of Health will propose legislative changes to Parliament within a year to bring about this new restriction, which will cover the sale of tobacco to under-21s, as well as the purchase, use and possession of tobacco products by them,” the Straits Times reports.

Well, this is something which everyone should support for one simple reason: kids and young people have no business deliberately putting poison into their bodies.

And for that matter, neither does anyone else, actually, especially when the cost of their habit is going to be borne by the wider public.

The writer, in hospital

Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor said that many smokers here pick up the habit before they turn 21, according to the Straits Times report.

I, for one, am among this group, and the habit would stick to me for almost 3 decades.

27 years of imbibing poison, leading to a quadruple heart bypass surgery at the end of it.

I can still remember, rather vividly, the first time I touched a cigarette and inhaled from it.

I was serving my National Service (NS) with the Singapore Combat Engineers at its then Khatib camp. I was a non-commissioned officer (NCO), in charge of a section of men.

I was 19-years old.

We NCOs had a leisure room to ourselves and we would hang out there during lull periods. Back then, smoking was not banned in camp, and the men could smoke freely, as long as they have asked for permission.

For NCOs, we had a little more freedom.

One day, while in the lounge, several NCO colleagues of mine were smoking. Out of curiosity, I asked one of them for a stick. He gladly obliged, without any hesitation.

After taking a few inhalations from the lit cigarette, I thought to myself, “Well, this is terrible.”

But that didn’t stop me from asking for a cigarette each time we hung out.

Well, you can’t keep asking your friends for handouts, and so one day I went and bought myself a small pack. Back in the 1980s, you could still buy those smaller 10-sticks packs. They were cheaper, especially for beginner smokers who may not yet be heavy smokers.

That was how I got hooked on the habit which would remain with me the next 27 years.

I had tried many times to quit.

I was 46 when I finally kicked the habit, after witnessing the ravaged body of a friend, a heavy smoker and drinker, laid out helplessly on a hospital bed.

He died a few days after I visited him.

He was about my age.

That was the fright I needed to quit smoking, and a friend signed me up to a smoking cessation clinic the very next day.

This was in 2012, and I have not touched a single cigarette since, nor have I had any craving to do so. I started to get healthy and took up swimming, running, cycling and any physical activity I could, including playing badminton. I also ate healthy, and cooked often at home, giving up hawker food.

I thought my body had healed itself from the 27 years of poisoning I had inflicted on it.

When I turned 50 in 2016, however, the past came back to haunt me.

I started to have pain in the chest while I walked. Even a short walk from my home to the MRT station saw me having to stop along the way, catch my breath, and let the pain subside before I could carry on.

When I went to run or swim, I felt the same pain and had to stop and rest until the pain went away.

I put it all down to me not warming up properly before I swam or ran. So I dismissed it as temporary discomfort.

It was only because of another incident that I started to take the pain seriously. I was sitting on my bed one night reading. Suddenly, I couldn’t catch my breath. I had to take huge deep breaths, and still I could hardly feel the depth of my lungs.

Again, I dismissed it as an anomaly. Nothing to worry about.

Then, a few days later, it happened again.

This time, I decided that I’d better have it checked out at the hospital. I did not want anything untoward to happen to me, because it would not be fair to my family.

I went to the polyclinic. They found nothing, but referred me to Tan Tock Seng, which did a treadmill ECG on me. The doctor found that I had a lack of oxygen when I exerted myself. She referred me to the National Heart Centre.

The cardiologist did an angiogram and confirmed that I had three major blockages in my arteries – one was 100% blocked, the other two 80% blocked.

I was ordered to stop all exercise immediately.

Stenting was not an option, the doctor said.

Only surgery would do, a bypass surgery, and the sooner the better.

It would be triple bypass, he said.

A week later, I was in the operating theatre, in the hands of one Dr Lim, a senior consultant at the NHCS with many years of experience in surgery.

After a 5-hour surgery, I was out of the operation room.

Open chest surgery

Dr Lim told me he had to do an extra bypass because he found another blockage in one of the other arteries.

So, I ended up with a quadruple coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG), commonly pronounced “cabbage”.

I am one of the lucky ones who caught the disease while I could still do something about it. If I had not gone to the doctor in time, I would have collapsed and died on the running track or in the pool.

Scars from where the doctor had to harvest a vein for the bypass surgery

My time in the recovery ward of SGH opened my eyes to how serious heart disease is in Singapore.

In my ward, patients came and went as they are wheeled into surgery and transferred to the ICU, or they are discharged to other facilities, while new patients came to take their place.

It was a constant coming and going. So many heart patients.

I managed to chat with some of these fellow patients while I was there recovering from my own surgery.

One of them, a man of 62, has been in and out of hospital numerous times, because his situation is so serious that doctors could not do a bypass surgery right away. They had to deal with all his other medical conditions first. And that had already taken a year.

When I asked how his conditions came about, he replied, “Smoking.”

“I was a heavy smoker,” he said. “3 packs a day.”

He only found out about his heart condition when he had a heart attack while in the shower at 3am one night. Now, he has quit smoking, but is left to deal with the many other ailments he has, most of which came about because of cigarettes.

Another patient was brought to the NHCS straight from the plane after he had a heart attack while holidaying in China.

He was 55-years old.

He too was a smoker.

When you are at the heart ward in NHCS, you get to see upfront, real close and personal, the people whom cigarette smoking have devastated. The two I have mentioned here are only the “better” ones. There was another older man, about 70, who has had 5 bypass done, and another who would gasp each time he breathed all through the night.

Having seen all this up close, and also from my own personal experience, I am all for the ban on cigarettes to young children and youths. They really have no business puffing their lives away.

If and when they do suffer the medical diseases which will inevitably come, their families will be burdened with not only the financial obligations but also the emotional pain. Yes, believe me, the families of these patients spend much time worrying.

So, I support the ban on smoking, so that our people – young and old – do not have to go through sufferings which are entirely preventable.

As for me, I am now doing well. I still go run regularly, swim sometimes, cycle and basically get out a lot.

I am thankful for the great doctors and nurses and medical professionals who took care of me, and who have given me a second lease on life.

I wish I had never smoked, or had stopped earlier and had not done so much damage to myself.

So yes, please do everything you can to quit smoking, if you are a smoker.

And if you are not a smoker, don’t pick up the habit. There is nothing glamorous or cool about it.

If you don’t believe me, just go pay a visit to the heart ward at the hospitals.

You can read about the writer’s personal journey here.

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