‘It seems kind of cool’

By Jennifer Choi, 15, Crescenta Valley HS (La Crescenta)
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Jennifer thinks it's important to share her experience so she can convince others not to smoke.

I was born into a smoking family. My dad, uncles and older cousins smoke all the time. They never listen to anyone’s pleas to quit. I hate it when they smoke right in front of my face or at my house because I can’t stand the smell. I’m scared that one day I might get sick from inhaling the wafts of thick smoke. Even though I tell them about the risks to their health, nothing has stopped their addiction, even when my grandpa died from smoking.

My dad started smoking at age 23. He smokes a pack every day now. I didn’t think much about my dad’s smoking or how bad it was for his health until my grandpa got sick when I was in the third grade. One of the most disappointing sights that I have seen of my dad was at the reception after my grandpa’s funeral. My dad and his brothers went outside and started to smoke. I couldn’t believe it. I was so mad that I wanted to go over to them and snap their cigarettes in half. It looked like they didn’t care about their father’s death and were disrespecting him.

My grandpa smoked for 40 years before he was diagnosed with throat cancer at the age of 80. He moved in with us and my parents cared for him for the next seven years. The cancer made it hard for him to swallow food and he had to have a hole cut in his throat to make it easier for him to breathe. It was covered with a cloth, but I imagined it to be a deep black hole filled with blood.

My grandpa was unable to drink or eat anything. He was given a special type of milk through a tube that was surgically cut into his stomach. He also couldn’t walk or shower by himself anymore. Because his cancer was weakening his vocal chords, he had a raspy voice and his breathing was loud. It was as if he was slowly dying in front of me.

I would listen to Korean radio with him while sitting next to his recliner, help my mom wash and dry his clothes, and pour the milk into the tube. To me he wasn’t a sick old patient. I adored him.

My sister and I tried to get through to my dad

Illustration by Lily Clark, 17, Immaculate Heart HS

When I saw my grandpa suffering from cancer, I knew that I couldn’t let this happen to my dad. I wanted him to quit. My older sister and I put together an anti-smoking PowerPoint presentation. I hunted for information on the web and my sister laid out everything on the computer.

One of the examples I used was a story about a man who started smoking at 13 and died 20 years later. He left his grieving wife and 4-year-old son. Just days before he died, he was seen smoking in his hospital room with his family beside him. I saw the picture of the dad lying on the bed. He looked like a car crash victim. His shriveled body, sunken cheeks and pointy shoulder blades gave me chills and goose bumps. I didn’t want to ever be in the position of that little boy.

We also showed my dad a video about a grandma smoking through a hole in her throat. I shuddered when I heard her deep, hoarse voice uttering, “They say nicotine isn’t addictive … How can they say that?” as she sucked the cigarette with her eyes closed and the smoke billowed out the hole. These stories showed how harmful smoking can be.

I knew the gory examples and pictures were powerful, but I also wanted something more personal. So my sister told me to end the PowerPoint with a video of me sharing my thoughts. I told myself that I was going to be harsh. But when I started to record, I could only say how I couldn’t afford to lose my dad to such a preventable action. Then, I started to cry. I ended the video saying that I loved him and wanted him to stay healthy and to always be there for me. After he watched the presentation, he hugged me and said, “I’ll try to stop for you.” But he didn’t take the whole thing that seriously because he walked right out of the room and didn’t talk to me about it.

Later that year, my grandpa’s cancer got so serious that he was transferred to a hospital. The day I went to St. Vincent Medical Center to visit my grandpa was a nightmare. I walked into his room with my parents. My aunts and uncles were already there. Everyone had blank expressions on their faces. My eyes shot to the machine that monitored his heart. Instead of going up and down with each strong heartbeat, the line was almost straight. My grandpa was heaving and losing strength with every passing minute. I didn’t expect to see him dying so fast. I had thought he would survive, leave the hospital and get better. It hit me hard. I backed out of the room and paced in the hallway. In the car, I cried. Five days later, he died.

The day after my grandpa died was like a dream. I had never thought about death in my family and for it to happen felt unreal. I began to think about the times I took his condition so lightly and how I didn’t help him enough at home. All I could do was promise myself that I wouldn’t let this happen to my dad.

I was shocked he didn’t stop

I expected my dad to quit after what happened to his own dad, but it was exactly the opposite. He smoked more often. I thought to myself, “How can he possibly continue to smoke?” My dad uses the weapon that killed my grandfather. Doesn’t he feel guilty or troubled by the thought that he’ll be following in my grandfather’s footsteps if he doesn’t stop?

Every day I nagged my dad to quit smoking, but he would always respond, “Don’t worry! I promise I will quit tomorrow. Let me just have this last one,” but would never follow through. He says that he has stress and needs something to alleviate it. He’s a manager of an air conditioning company and works long hours under the sun every day. He leaves at 8 in the morning and comes home around 10 at night. After dinner, he slips out the back door to steal puffs of nicotine-infested smoke until he feels relaxed. But this shouldn’t be his excuse, because there are plenty of other ways to relieve stress. It’s as if he’s a hostage to those little cigarettes.

During health class in the summer before high school, I learned more about the effects of smoking. There was a lesson in my health book about nicotine, which is the chemical in tobacco that causes addiction. It tells the brain you can’t do anything unless you have a cigarette. This reminded me of the time when my dad told my mom that he wanted to quit for his health, but it was really hard. He said that he went without a cigarette at work for just two hours and started hyperventilating. He began to feel dizzy and dropped his tools. All he could focus on was smoking a cigarette.

I found statistics that said nearly 60,000 people die a year from secondhand smoke either from heart disease, lung cancer, asthma attacks or other infections. Women who live with a smoker have a 91 percent greater risk of heart disease and twice the risk of dying from lung cancer; 91 percent, that’s a lot. I was paranoid that when I got older, I’d be one of those 60,000 people because of my dad.

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A few months later, I found out that my 25-year-old cousin had started smoking. Maybe he thought it was OK because he saw the other men in my family do the same thing. I wanted to tell my dad that he was setting a bad example for the younger people in my family. I was so angry that I knew I had to try again to make him quit.

After school one day, I typed “nasty effects of smoking” into Google and found images of people with rotting teeth, deep wrinkles, black circles under their eyes and patches of no hair. I felt nauseous when I saw a picture of a healthy pink lung next to one all black and shriveled up. It looked like a dead, burnt rat that oozed with wet tar. I wanted to get the point across to my dad. So that night I showed my dad the pictures. I heard a sound that I wasn’t expecting. A laugh. He was actually laughing. How could he not take this seriously? He said in Korean, “That’s not going to happen to me. I bet some of them are Photoshopped just to create a more dramatic effect.” I was pissed. I was clenching my teeth so I wouldn’t talk back to my dad. If he wasn’t going to take it seriously, I wouldn’t either. I wasn’t going to waste my energy on someone who wasn’t willing to change. I decided to give up.

After that, whenever I saw him inhaling the chemicals and cancer-causing toxins, I was upset because he made me smell the smoke.

A few months later, I would smell smoke for a few seconds even though nobody was smoking anywhere near me. It was weird, but I ignored it at first. But when I kept on smelling it during class, in the library and in the car, I freaked out. It felt like the smoke was following me everywhere. I told my sister and to my surprise she was going through it too! I was shocked and scared. We went online and found out that we were going through minor phantosmia, which is smelling imaginary odors.

I can’t escape the smell

When my dad would come back inside after smoking, the smell lingered. I got used to turning on the air conditioning and opening the windows to get rid of the smell. I would run to my room and slam my door and yell at my dad to get out of the house. I felt like a prisoner. My mom saw me crying once because the smell was so unbearable and lectured my dad to quit once and for all. She admitted to him that she was sick and tired of the smell too.

My father still smokes. He spends thousands of dollars a year to have that temporary pleasure and calmness. We’ve tried to get him to see a therapist to quit, but he keeps saying that he wants to do it on his own. I don’t want to give up on him. But at the same time, I’m afraid that my next attempt is going to fail just like the previous ones.  One thing I’ve learned after seeing people close to me suffer is to never touch a cigarette. The problem no longer rests in my hands, but in his. Ultimately, my dad needs to give smoking up for his own sake. I just pray that he can be freed soon.