Chloe Slasberg remembers her first cigarette vividly, and regrets it intensely.
After being a goody-two-shoes throughout most of her teenage years, it was on her very first night out at 17 that someone outside the pub offered her one. It was ‘love at first puff’, as she says.
As an asthmatic, the 49-year-old, from Essex, had always been strongly against smoking and had even encouraged her parents to quit. “I was tremendously anti-smoking,” Chloe told the Mirror. “All the adults smoked in my family and I hated it. It was totally a spur-of-the-moment decision, I was a little tipsy. I just took it and loved it, and thought, ‘Oh I want another one and another one’. I wish I’d never had it.”
What started as a social habit soon turned into a full-blown addiction, and by the time she was 18 she was hooked on 20-a-day. Her addiction intensified when she was looking after her grandfather, who had undergone surgery to remove the bottom of his oesophagus due to cancer caused by smoking.
Knowing full well the harm the deadly sticks could do, Chloe would sneak a cigarette on the way to the bookies to place his bets. Her dependency got worse when she started her busy job as a nurse and carer in the NHS, where she found that ‘everyone’ smoked.
She says she and her colleagues were eligible for an extra break if they were smokers, so they jumped at the chance. Meanwhile, the doctors she knew said that if she gave up by the time she was 35, she’d be fine. “It really was the only break you’d get, if you didn’t smoke you didn’t get a break,” she explained.
“We went back to the patients stinking to high heaven. Even though it was very well known about the harmful effects, I think we were more worried about getting old than getting a lung condition.”
Smoking is the biggest preventable killer in the UK, as cigarettes contain 5,000 chemicals, many of which cause cancer. Despite the well-known health risks, nicotine is a highly addictive main psychoactive ingredient, which makes it incredibly hard for a smoker to stop.
“It was all-consuming. I’d put one out and immediately want another one and I wouldn’t stop thinking about it until I had another one,” Chloe, who used smoking as a social crutch too, said. She believed it eased her anxiety and that cigarettes helped her through a difficult divorce.
At around 35, she gradually reduced the number she had in a day, too embarrassed to be caring for patients with a lingering odour. But despite trying “everything under the sun”, she couldn’t kick it completely.
She bought nicotine patches and tried hypnotherapy. When the Government pushed swapping to vapes to help smokers quit, she tried that too, but it only made her feel worse. She found herself coughing more, and became increasingly breathless as she sucked on the plastic tubes.
She experienced terrible tightness in her chest, and whenever she laughed, she lost her breath and would have to fight to regain it. “Whenever something new came out, I went for it. With vapes, very quickly I felt a lot, a lot worse. When I got poorly with vapes, I even went back to smoking thinking that was better for me,” she reflected.
“Friends didn’t want to make me laugh in case I didn’t live through it,” she chuckled croakily.
Despite becoming breathless in her physically demanding role, she refused to see a doctor, admitting “I didn’t want a diagnosis because then I know I’d have to stop”. Her symptoms persisted for several years, including immense pain in her shoulder blade. Things finally came to a head when she suffered a coughing fit in the doctors one day.
There about another health problem, a nurse booked her in for a CT scan in December 2019, which terrifyingly showed it could be lung cancer. Then in January 2020 she was told they had it wrong, and it was in fact COPD – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In nine out of 10 cases, smoking is the direct cause, and she was instructed to immediately stop.
In a negative headspace, she didn’t think she was capable, despite being told the horrifying reality of her ordeal. Then all of a sudden four months later, she had a breakthrough. “Even after the diagnosis, I carried on. It was all dark then,” she admitted. “But then when I came to realise I could have some control and improve my life quality, it was massive.”
She managed to quit altogether after coming across charity Asthma and Lung UK’s Pulmonary Rehab – a programme of exercises to help people with long-term lung problems to build back their lung strength, which gave her hope of a brighter future. The former nurse, who has been forced to give up work because of her condition and other health problems, began exercising every day and followed the treatment programme, including singing for lung health and playing the harmonica, which can help build lung capacity.
During the lockdown, she virtually took part in the London Marathon 2021 in her garden, which took her almost 24 hours. “I just decided one day and that was that. I think because I had tried everything already,” she said. “Every time I wanted a cigarette, I’d do a few laps around the garden. I’m very habit-driven, once I got into it. I can’t bear it [smoking] now, I can’t bear the smell on other people. I didn’t miss it one little bit, I felt relieved not to be thinking about it.”
While she managed to quit and has been smoke-free since, her years of addiction have destroyed her quality of live. Chloe, who also has an autoimmune disease, hasn’t been to the supermarket since the coronavirus outbreak for fear of contracting the life-threatening virus or a cold, which would make her severely ill.
She sees family and friends, but hasn’t been to a restaurant or other public space, except for hospital. Similarly to the lockdown rules, she’ll meet people in parks or her beloved garden.
Living alone for the past 17 years, she has got into a happy routine at home with her cat. Mornings will be spent stretching and exercising, while she sews in the afternoons. Her housework has to be spread out so she can manage it, while things like getting up quickly to answer the door can be a troublesome task.
She takes a daily inhaler for her COPD, of which there is no cure. “There are days where I get really down and I have to fight that. I try to keep a positive mindset. It is very isolating because I don’t want to go out to places,” she revealed.
“I’m a burden to the health service and my friends and family. I have other physical disabilities so I’m unable to work now. You don’t imagine the effects it has on your own health. Minimising your years and also giving those years you have got difficulties. You have to work every day to keep your lungs strong so you can do the most minimum of tasks.”
Now as a non-smoker, when she sees people in the street puffing away, she admits she looks down on them. “I’m disgusted by them. I was aware of what it could do to your lungs, I just didn’t think it was happening to mine. It makes me feel ill when I see people smoking.”
And when Chloe, who has two young nephews, sees youngsters smoking or vaping, it “breaks her heart.” A friend of hers caught their 14-year-old vaping, which is a regular occurrence among his social circle. “I’ve wondered before about whether I should approach them, but if I was their age, I don’t think I’d listen. It’s difficult to know what to say and what influence to have,” she added.
On the disposable vaping ban, aimed at stopping young people from vaping, set to come into force at the end of the year, Chloe said: “It’s good it’s coming at all, but I think with each day that goes by, how many more kids are going to start? Hundreds maybe thousands will be in my situation in 40 years.”
She is hugely behind the Government’s proposals of a ‘smoke-free generation’, which would see the introduction of a new law to stop children who turn 15 this year or younger from ever legally being sold cigarettes. MPs are expected to vote on the matter in Parliament on February 12.
“I’m very behind this, for all the future kids and families that won’t have this [COPD]. The health system will benefit, everyone will benefit, even those who don’t smoke,” she asserted. “I’m not a supporter of anything else Rishi Sunak has come up with but I really think this would be a wonderful thing if it happens.
“A ban should have been introduced decades ago because knowing something is bad for you and being able to break an addiction are two different things.” In a final message for smokers, Chloe warned: “Please don’t leave it until you’ve got something like COPD to give up. Give up whilst it’s in your capability to live a full and healthy life. Living like this is hard.
“I’m a positive person but it is very easy to go the other way and I worry about the burden I am on friends and family as they have to do more and more for me because of my breathing. Don’t assume COPD is for 70 or over, I believe I was just under 40 when I started and didn’t want to accept it. I always had the thought that ‘it wouldn’t be me.'”
Chloe added: “It’s so easy to start smoking, even someone who was disgusted by it until I got handed one. After that, I was like ‘this is the most wonderful thing on earth’. It became part of me. It becomes part of your personality and aura. And it’s so hard to stop.”
Chloe is walking the Royal Parks Half Marathon on behalf of Asthma and Lung UK. You can donate to her cause on her fundraising page. Meanwhile, you can tell your MP to make smoking history | Asthma + Lung UK (asthmaandlung.org.uk). More information on COPD, which affects 1.4 million people in England, can be found on the charity’s information webpage.