It is illegal for a person under the age of 18 to use tobacco products in Minnesota. They may not smoke cigarettes or cigars or use snuff or chewing tobacco. But, if you have been near a high school in the half hour or so before classes start, odds are you’ll see one or more students smoking cigarettes. Once in a while, they are caught, ticketed and end up in my courtroom.
And if they end up in my courtroom, they will hear the story of my mother-in-law.
I will tell them that Vivian started smoking at just about their age. She didn’t know when she started that she would develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema.
I tell these young people that I would not wish the death my mother-in-law endured on my worst enemy. I tell them that Sibley County used to have a smoking education class (unfortunately dropped due to lack of funding and not enough participants) where one of the exercises was to take a very small straw – the kind sometime used to stir mixed drinks – place your lips tightly around it, pinch your nose and breath through that tiny straw. That’s what it’s like having COPD.
I tell them what it was like to sit by her bedside at the nursing home, laboring to breath and waiting until she could have another nebulizer, that opened up the airways a little more to make breathing marginally easier.
Young people are invincible. They are indestructible. Something that might happen 20, 30, 40 or 50 years from now is just not important. And odds are pretty good that they are living with adults who smoke, too, which makes it just that much more difficult.
My brother, Dr. Mike McCarthy, spent a large part of his medical career dealing with people suffering from chemical addiction. As a Family Practice doctor and later as Director of Medicine at an inpatient treatment program, Dr. Mike would routinely see chemically dependent patients. As I regularly see those types of folks, too, we would often compare notes. Dr. Mike once told me that of all the chemicals to which people can become addicted – alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin – nicotine was the hardest chemical to kick.
I know that my little sermons will normally go in one ear and out the other. But, I still need to give it. Because I never know if I am talking to the right young person at the right time so that the message sticks and they will take steps to quit.
I hope, in 26 years, there was at least one.
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Next Week: The Value of Education