Retired head of Neurosurgery at Tygerberg Hospital, Prof Peter Rose-Innes, used to be a 20-a-day-man – and so were many of his colleagues. In his case it took a major health scare to get him to kick the habit for good.
Despite starting the habit himself at a young age, Prof Rose-Innes says that he can’t quite understand why he still sees so many young people smoking. “The difference is, they have all the facts before them now and they still do it! When I started smoking at the age of about 17, as a senior boy doing post-matric at St Andrew’s College, we at least had the excuse of not knowing how dangerous it was. But it still seems bizarre to think that nearly all the senior boys smoked; not only that, but we were allowed to – the seniors could smoke in their private studies.”
This was in 1948, when, Prof Rose-Innes explains, there was no social stigma attached to smoking. “For young men like ourselves, it was the accepted social thing to do. It showed you were grownup, and a bit macho. (Young women hardly ever smoked, though.) The only prohibiting factor for me, really, was the cost. I became a 20-a-day smoker because a pack of 20 was all I could afford, and I stayed at that, very occasionally going over. It amazes me that people can afford it at the prices cigarettes sell for these days.”
Although doctors who smoke are now becoming a rarer breed, this was not always the case. “It seems extraordinary now, but when I was a registrar in my twenties (in the 1950’s), most doctors smoked. When we used to go on ward rounds at Groote Schuur, all of us smoked – consultants, registrars, everybody. The Chief of Neurosurgery then was himself a chain smoker. He wouldn’t smoke when actually in a patient’s presence in the ward (or when operating) – but this was for reasons of social etiquette, not really for medical reasons. Then, after examining a patient, he would go into the corridor and light up – and everyone would troop after him and follow suit.”
The changeover to anti-smoking policies in the medical world was gradual. “You would think doctors, given their insight into health issues, would have been the first to give up. But even once the evidence against smoking began to mount, most doctors who smoked paid little attention. Or rather, they just didn’t want to know and believe it applied to themselves.”
“My father died of lung cancer in the 1970s, but even that didn’t make me think of giving up. He had smoked 50 cigarettes a day, and I told myself that my own 20-a-day habit was relatively mild, merely ‘social smoking’.
“I carried on smoking until 1986, when I had my first angina pain, and was diagnosed with coronary heart disease. I had a coronary bypass and four months later I was found to have an aortic aneurism. From the moment I had the first chest pains, I gave up smoking and have never smoked since. Nor have I ever had even the slightest inclination to do so. I don’t recall any withdrawal symptoms either. Perhaps, being a doctor, I had insight into my medical condition and how dangerous smoking is under those circumstances, and that’s what helped me give up. But it does seem quite ridiculous that that’s what it took. I have no doubt that my heart problems were due in large part to smoking.”
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