As an example to others, and not that I care for moderation myself, it has always been my rule never to smoke when asleep, and never to refrain from smoking when awake. 

–MARK TWAIN, AMERICAN WRITER, HUMOURIST AND LECTURER

Perhaps it was a good thing that I had the willpower to quit smoking decades ago.

It started in the last few weeks of our Upper Sixth days in Sibu (1974), that some of us experimented with the cigarettes partly to get the feel of them as well as to puff smokes in driving away mosquitoes during night study in the classrooms.

After all, we were left to our own without any supervision from our hostel warden Mr Ling who was already of an advanced age.

Then the most popular cigarette brand was Three Fives (555) State Express which cost RM1 for seven sticks and which was easily affordable by us poor rural students studying in a top urban school. It was among the cheapest fags in town as it was the only brand sold in that package (seven sticks) per pack.

Other brands in those days were selling between RM2 and RM4 for each pack of 20 sticks while the cheaper brands were selling between RM1 and RM1.50 for 20 sticks. My late dad smoked the likes of Rough Rider (Chap Kuda), Embassy and others. Then the more expensive brands were Consulate, Malboro, Rothman, Benson and Hedges, Capstan, Players’ Gold Leaf, Camel, Kent and many more.

My intense coughing in our first three months in the varsity led me to give smoking cigarettes a pause and consequentially a stop.

Prices of cigarettes that have been adjusted and getting more expensive over the last few years have succeeded to a small extent in putting the brake on the smoking momentum in the country.  

Now that the prices of cigarettes are almost reaching the RM20 mark, many are unperturbed by them. Instead of stopping, they change their brands to the cheaper ones, including fags that are imported illegally onto our shores or through our borders. These cigarettes are those containing high nicotine unlike those that are legally imported whose nicotine contents are monitored and controlled.

It is believed that due to the high nicotine content, cheap cigarettes like LA (green, blue or red) can be addictive. Someone very close to me has no taste for other brands after replacing Salem Light with LA many years ago when the price of the former shot up to RM8.60 from RM7 and later RM17.40.

LA initially cost RM2.50 per packet of 20 while now its price ranges between RM3.50 and RM4.50 depending on the location. Nevertheless, I am not surprised if a few give up smoking during the current movement control order (MCO) period due to Covid-19 pandemic. 

My brother Jon, 72, who has been a smoker for half a century, has this to say: “I will only quit smoking if the price of one pack of 20 reaches the RM20 level.”

Whatever the price is, I am sure he will remain loyal to the industry till eternity.

Our parents who were both smokers — dad started with the nipah leaves and cheap tobacco while mom took to the more expensive and imported ‘semakau sik’ (green label) rolled up in a special soft thin white paper — tried planting tobacco in the late 60s at our own plot of land at Bukit Tinggi upper Melupa, just about 30 minutes’ walk from Nanga Assam Primary School (going upriver).

The project succeeded, earning them some income. Their enthusiasm did not last for more than two years due to fluctuating success.

Mom, who passed on at 72, never stopped smoking. Her last three requested items were coffee, sugar and, of course, a stick of cigarette (Consulate). All were given immediately upon request but they remained untouched; that was why we called them as her ‘death wish’. She left peacefully minutes later after noting that those items were in place near her hospital bed.

Dad, on the other hand, managed to quit smoking many months prior to his demise at the ripe age of 92. 

Both of them did not live to see the prices of cigarettes getting very close to the RM20 mark.

An anti-smoking advert in Malaysia says that tobacco smokes contain over 4,000 chemicals. Other statistics are available which readers can easily find for themselves in the Internet. I only offer those that I have committed to memory and which are not available elsewhere.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.