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  • By Diana G. Mendoza

Growing up with clouds across the room

Manila-- Two years ago in Abu Dhabi while attending a media seminar back-to-back with an international tobacco conference, I listened to Princess Dina Mired of Jordan, speaking as director general of her country’s cancer foundation, sum up my experience growing up with smokers at a time when there were no “no smoking” signs yet.

“While running around as a kid with my grandmothers relaxing, I remember there were always clouds of smoke across the room,” she said. The Jordanian royalty is known for communicating a healthy lifestyle to young people who are looking at shisha inhaled from a hookah or water pipe, aside from e-cigarettes that are becoming dangerously popular and acceptable, as the cooler alternatives to the traditional cigarette.

She said many smokers and shisha producers and sellers defend shisha as a better version of cigarettes because the water that vaporizes the smoke cleans the harmful content of tobacco .

“Nicotine and all of tobacco’s’ harmful contents in whatever way they are conveyed is poisonous,” she said in a statement that resonated in the conference that is held every three years to fight the global multibillion dollar tobacco industry that health activists consider “the most vicious enemy of humankind.”

In northern Philippines where I grew up, I watched adults puff like dragons and fill the house with smoke that made me feel heady because of the piercing smell that was pungent, sweet and spicy. I realized later that the smell was stimulating and the smoke was dreamy. I thought the adults made the otherwise sleepy summer afternoons of my childhood so rousing.

My grandfather smoked the tabako, a brown cigar larger in length and width than the common white cigarette stick, which he bought in boxes. Sometimes, he rolled his own cigar from dried leaves that he bought. My grandmother smoked the Alhambra Matamis (sweet), a slim brown cig that she just struck between her lips when she wasn’t in the mood light up. I still marvel at how she managed not to drop the cigarette when she talked or yelled.

Today as countries campaign and urge governments to create policies to ban tobacco and expose smoking as ugly and unhealthy, smoking remains a habit that is difficult to quit for especially to those who start early. It remains a social stimulus for young people about to try their first blow of smoke.

The advocacy is met head-on by the tobacco industry’s advertising and marketing tools that target the youth. And the message is the same – smoking can make you look cool.

For countries where smoking is a ritual and cultural norm, the princess said the battle is tougher. “As I was growing up, the cigarettes were served to family visitors on nice platters. It was considered polite to pick a stick and light up,” she said.

I first had my taste of tobacco when me and my cousins snuck a stick from my grandma’s packet, and true to its name, it tasted sweet. In college, I smoked with friends as we celebrated the completion of our thesis defense. We wanted to look as cool as our female professor who smoked while asking questions during the defense.

My grandparents died of old age, but no one knew if they had respiratory disorders as there was always coughing, but both had hypertension before they died.

My father started smoking at 15. When he was diagnosed with lung cancer six years ago at 80, the doctor expressed disbelief that my father reached that age, because it was rare. Under normal health situations, he said a smoker is done at age 60.

My father’s vegetable, fruit, seafood and seaweed-heavy diet and active lifestyle must have helped, and the doctor agreed, but added that he should have quit smoking too.

I make it an effort to practice my dad’s healthy nutrition and lifestyle. But I have allergic rhinitis. It is obvious that I got this growing up with clouds wafting my childhood. There are lessons to be learned about the stimulating smell of tobacco and the dreamy smoke.

Diana Mendoza is a freelance journalist based in Manila. Send feedback to

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