I started smoking when I was 15, and carried on for 35 years. Like many people, I found it pretty hard to give up – it really hooks you in when you’re young and feeling invincible. I had treatment to remove pre-cancerous cells from my cervix about eight years ago, and though I was told it was likely to be related to smoking, it didn’t make me quit. I lost my father, a heavy smoker for 60 years, to smoking-related heart disease and diabetes – I still didn’t quit. Then I lost my husband, also an ex-smoker, to lymphoma. I managed to quit smoking about a year later, but in 2008, two years on, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
I knew while I smoked that I was pushing my luck, and I knew my father bitterly regretted not giving up sooner. I was saved by a radical hysterectomy and early diagnosis of my cancer, but how much easier would it be if people didn’t start smoking in the first place? How many other families would be spared going through such a painful time?
I’m sharing my story to try to show that when we’re debating measures like plain packaging, and when we’re balancing public health benefits with tobacco industry profits, we’re talking about real people and real families – families like mine.
I can certainly remember, as a child, the impact that different cigarette packs had on me when I was starting to smoke. The cigarettes my Dad smoked were Camels, and they were strong, manly and tough. They weren’t the kind of thing a young woman smoked, so I started smoking Park Drive cigarettes. They came in small, slim and elegant packs, perfect for my handbag. After I’d quit smoking, but before my diagnosis, I remember being sorely tempted to start smoking again by packs of Iris cigarettes. They looked very much like the Vogue cigarettes in the UK now; long and slim, they just screamed elegance. I associated them with glamorous lifestyles, with opera visits and late afternoon coffees. They were romantic and chic, and therefore seemed somehow less harmful. When you see packs like that, the influence of the packaging itself suddenly becomes crystal-clear.
Thankfully, my son doesn't smoke. Like many smokers, I was adamant that I didn’t want him to start. I knew only too well the difficulties of giving up once you’re addicted. No doubt the devastation of his grandfather's illness as a result of smoking (he suffered with gangrene and amputations, among other things), and his parents’ battle with cancer played a huge role is his determination not to smoke.
Plain packaging will help to make cigarettes less noticeable, and less important in children’s lives, so I urge the government to make this happen as soon as possible. I don't want other families going through what mine has.
Rosa, 55, is a Cancer Campaigns Ambassador for Cancer Research UK and an ovarian cancer survivor