SINGAPORE - Security guard Azlan Samad has not been on a family holiday in nine years. Cigarettes drained a sixth of the $1,800 he took home each month, leaving his family of three with little in the bank.
But since he kicked the habit last year, the 53-year-old has added $300 more to the family kitty each month. A long-awaited holiday in Thailand is now in sight.
"I feel much better. I have more appetite and I have more energy," said Mr Azlan.
He is one of 5,700 smokers who have quit or smoked less thanks to the Health Promotion Board's (HPB) I Quit smoking cessation programme, where trained counsellors help smokers through the crucial first 28 cigarette-free days.
Smokers may experience withdrawal symptoms during this time. Counsellors encourage them with regular phone calls and tips, for instance, to sip a glass of water or milk slowly when the urge kicks in.
HPB is increasing the number of polyclinics, hospitals and pharmacies where smokers can sign up for the scheme. There were 150 such "touchpoints" last year; this year, the figure will nearly double to 283.
At an event yesterday to launch this year's I Quit campaign, Parliamentary Secretary for Health Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim said: "We are taking a friendly approach to quitting, making it easy, less intimidating, by being with smokers every step of the way."
This year, counsellors will also reach out to friends and family of those trying to quit, by giving them tips too.
In 2013, about 13.3 per cent of the population aged 18 to 69 smoked, according to the latest figures from a National Health Surveillance Survey. HPB aims to cut this down to 12 per cent by 2020.
But kicking the habit is not easy. Studies show it takes a smoker six to seven tries on average before he successfully stubs out.
Mr Azlan, for one, tried quitting for years. "But I would get a runny nose or friends would offer me a cigarette. I could not tahan (Malay for 'tolerate'), and so I smoked," he said. "When I signed up for the programme, counsellors would remind me (not to give up), so I just endured," he said.
The scheme also proved crucial to those who smoked in secret, like Mr Gilbert Ee, 33. The banker had nobody to turn to as he had kept his habit a secret from his wife and family for more than two years.
He would puff away at work and in his home toilet. "I had three cans of air freshener in the toilet. I was so scared that one would not work so I had two cans as backup."
He decided to quit last November when his wife was pregnant. Weekly calls from nurses in the programme proved a great help. "The quitting journey was xiong (Hokkien for 'difficult')," he said. "But the nurses would call just in time... I felt like I had guardian angels."
Mr Ee also saves $300 a month on cigarettes, and has spent some of that on items for his baby girl, who is due in a few months. Mr Azlan's wife, Madam Nor Azizah, 51, said he is a different man.
"He is brighter, more cheery," said the housewife.
Major supermarkets, including FairPrice, Cold Storage and Sheng Siong, will not sell cigarettes to support World No Tobacco Day today.
This article was first published on May 31, 2015.
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