Thursday, January 08, 2009

“As President, I am giving up smoking for good!”

(I hope Barack Obama will deliver a speech like this after taking office as the 44th president of the United States. He will inspire millions of smokers around the world to give up nicotine addiction).

My fellow Americans,

As you know, I have inherited a long and daunting list of crisis that will severely test me and my cabinet in the days to come.

But there is one personal challenge I have decided to confront that I expect will give my presidency a head start.

Those who have read my memoir, Dreams from My Father, may recall my fondness for smoking. I begin several sentences with “I lit a cigarette,” whether describing my experience as a community organizer in Chicago or visiting relatives in Kenya.

In photographs taken in 1980 by a fellow student when I was a freshman at Occidental College in Los Angeles, you can see me, a 20-year-old, with a cigarette in my hand. In another, I am puffing dreamily on it.

It is a fact. I have been lighting up since my teenage years and have continued to do so for years. I found cigarettes soothing in stressful times, even though I was aware of the damage it was doing to my lungs. Nicotine is intoxicating. It is, as my young friends may say, cool, a mark of social sophistication.

But now I am the president of the United States of America. I have a moral responsibility to set an example for you and for people around the world, particularly the young.

I am giving up smoking for good. No occasional falling off the wagon, no puffing in private. No more smoking, period.

I am not a superman. I do not underestimate the difficulty involved. Giving up smoking requires formidable will power. But as thousands of you in America and around the world prove everyday, it can be done. Smoking is behavior and we know that behavior can be changed for personal and common good.

Today, as in every day of the year, 4,000 of our kids between the ages of 12 and 17 will start smoking. Worldwide, about 100,000 people start smoking everyday, most of them kids.

Smoking kills over 1,200 Americans everyday, about 450,000 a year. Around the world, the toll exceeds 5.5 million a year.

Beyond lives cut short, there are other prices we pay as a society. The annual direct healthcare expense and productivity loss traced to smoking are estimated at about $100 billion each in America.

As president, I will take measures to reduce the power of Big Tobacco. Because it is a lethal product, I will subject cigarettes to more taxes than ordinary products. I will use the power of my office to exclude it from the guidelines of Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trades and from all future US bilateral and regional trade agreements. I will support the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). The previous administration did not ratify FCTC but I will send it to the Congress and the Senate to swiftly ratify it.

Increasing public awareness of the harmful effects of smoking in America and Europe has forced tobacco companies to shift their attention to Africa, Latin America and Asia, where weak governments and corrupt officials often succumb to their enticements. My administration will hold American tobacco companies responsible if they dump their products through bribery and false advertisement anywhere in the world.

We cannot flood weak markets with tobacco while demanding that hard drugs do not flow into the United States. My administration will never tolerate such hypocrisy.

Youngsters say one of the biggest influences on them is seeing people they know or admire light up. I am making a personal appeal to Hollywood and to actors, athletes and other celebrities to stop glamorizing smoking. If even a single person looks up to you, and you smoke, renounce the habit and you will have performed a charity whose fruits others will reap for years.

A few pundits, probably well-meaning, have suggested that I should indulge in an occasional puff or two to relieve tension, now that the weight of the world is upon me. They worry that if I give up smoking, I will not only lose my svelte figure but also my steely calm, the very quality that made you vote for me in the first place. They predict that I will become irritable, nervous, forget social niceties and embarrass the nation if I stop puffing for good.

They are wrong. I am happily sacrificing the pleasures of smoking for the benefits its shunning will bring to me and to anyone inspired by my example.

I also assure you, I will not lose my calm or control because of the absence of cigarettes from my life. I am made of sterner stuff than that.

So, my fellow smokers, old and young: can we lick this lethal habit together once and for all?

Yes, we can.

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