Cigarettes are exceptional products, at least in economic terms. An increase in price doesn’t affect the demand for it. This is all the more evident in the emerging black market for cigarettes during the coronavirus lockdown, because of limited stock and unavailability, Indians are paying a 50-60 per cent mark-up on MRP, buying cigarettes worth Rs 16 or 17 a pop for as much as Rs 25-30, and in some cases, even higher. Additionally, people aren’t selling more than one box of cigarettes at a time to an individual, given the limited supply.
Smokers will argue that cigarettes are a source of anxiety relief and stress-busting. Keeping this in mind, many countries like Switzerland, France, Italy and Spain have allowed the sale of cigarettes during the lockdown and let small shops remain open so people don’t have to go through withdrawal symptoms and cope with additional anxiety while already coping with the stress of the pandemic. In India, as many as 53 per cent of smokers between 20 and 30 years of age identify as stress smokers, said a survey last year.
But no such exceptions were made in India, where many have had to deal with the unavailability of cigarettes. Other smokers are finding it hard to steal a drag as the quarantine has locked them in with their family, while others still are using the chance to kick the butt.
Forced cold turkey
A student based in Bhopal tells ThePrint she constantly thinks about the cigarette she will smoke once the lockdown is lifted. For her, the inability to get a smoke right now has been stressful and frustrating. “I wanted to quit, but I wanted to do it on my own terms,” she says. “Elders in my family chew tobacco and, for some reason, that’s acceptable but smoking isn’t.” On more than one occasion, she has even stolen some tobacco from them to chew, but it’s no alternative to smoking, she says.
For some smokers who are vulnerable to depression and anxiety, quitting is even more difficult. “My friend who suffers from depression smokes as a way of dealing with anxiety. In the absence of cigarettes, he has even had suicidal thoughts lately,” a Nagpur-based doctor tells ThePrint.
For many who live with their with family or have moved back with them for the duration of the quarantine, even buying cigarettes in black isn’t an option. And, says a Hyderabad-based student, the rules are different for men and women. While families naturally aren’t encouraging of the habit, they tend to look away even if they know their son is smoking. “For men, the habit of smoking is looked at as a natural (if undesirable) stage in life, but for women it’s completely amoral to smoke,” she adds.
A chance to nip the habit in the bud
Siddharth, an IT professional, had been smoking about 9-10 cigarettes a day for the past five years, but never truly enjoyed it. “I think, every time I smoked, the desire and the need to quit was always at the back of my head,” he says.
Before the lockdown, he had never gone more than two days without it. Now he has been without a cigarette for over a month, but he doesn’t really miss it. “I never thought it’d be so easy to not smoke for so long,” he tells ThePrint, while adding how the absence of stress and other triggers has made it easier. “Nobody is constantly breathing down my neck, asking for something or the other, I’m not stuck in traffic everyday, so that helps.”
Another smoker who is happy to use this time to quit is a Jaipur-based builder. A chainsmoker, he found himself irritable and temperamental during the initial smoke-free days, but lots of water and strenuous exercise have helped him sail through. “Every time I have a strong urge, I run up and down the stairs to keep it in check.”
The need to smoke does arise because of triggers and habits that form around it. Many associate smoking with other activities — the one to have with evening tea, the one before you go to the bathroom, the one before you go to bed, a post-coital one, and so on. Effective coping is necessary to overcome these triggers, says Delhi-based psychologist Dr. Parul Adlakha. “Once the person is aware of the trigger that may lead to relapse, they’ll be able to cope with the withdrawal.”
She suggests using nicotine patches, distracting yourself with exercise, and coming up with some coping strategies of your own in advance so you know what you need to do whenever you get the overwhelming urge to smoke.
Another way of distracting oneself is to keep your mouth busy, like chewing gum or drinking water. Siddharth, for example, has taken the slightly unorthodox route of chewing his pen whenever he feels like he needs to smoke.
But many are just biding their time and waiting for the lockdown to end. An advertising professional in Gurgaon says the withdrawal symptoms have been difficult to deal with as she finds it hard to concentrate on work, suffers from sleepless nights and gets restless every now and then. For her, the light at the end of the lockdown tunnel, the silver lining to this whole experience, is that “the cigarette I smoke once all this ends will be legendary”.
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