A doctor’s struggle with addiction: How Dr K Hari Prasad defeated tobacco

It took me thirty-four years to give up tobacco, and I’m still not sure about the extent of damage it has done to my body, writes Dr Hari Prasad.
A doctor’s struggle with addiction: How Dr K Hari Prasad defeated tobacco
A doctor’s struggle with addiction: How Dr K Hari Prasad defeated tobacco
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Pankaj was a close friend of mine in school. We studied in the same class. He was a happy-go-lucky person, who used to get into trouble with the teachers quite often for his pranks. His parents were in Lucknow and he used to live in the school hostel. He was the one who initiated me into smoking in Grade 10. Once we were done with school, I stayed back in Hyderabad and pursued my career in Medicine, while he went back to Lucknow, did his engineering and started looking after the family business.

Although Pankaj and I kept in touch, we never had the opportunity to meet after school...until ten years later, when he came to Hyderabad. I was thrilled and went to receive him at the airport. The first thing I did on seeing him was to offer him a cigarette. He refused it and said that he had stopped smoking two years ago. I was curious to know how he had managed to do so.

He told me that although he had stopped smoking, he chewed tobacco to maintain the nicotine levels in the body. I had mixed feelings about it. Soon, I was asking myself which was a better alternative—smoking or chewing tobacco. As a doctor, I knew both were equally bad. I concluded that my lungs were being affected by smoking, and that was limiting my mobility. So the choice was clear.

I asked for some tobacco. He gave me some... I spit it out the moment it landed on my tongue. It had a terrible taste. He laughed at my plight. The guy who had initiated me into smoking then gave me a wonderful idea. He asked me to try a zarda paan—a preparation of betel nut leaf with tobacco.

I was desperate to quit smoking. Taking his advice, I took my first zarda paan. As days passed, my paan intake increased, and the urge to smoke reduced drastically. Thanks to the twenty-five zarda paans I was chewing every day, I had stopped smoking. But this brought a new challenge in my life. Newton had stated in his third law of motion that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. I’m not entirely convinced about the ‘equal’ and ‘opposite’ in this case, but chewing zarda paans did have a noticeable impact on me. And since it was not nectar by any standards, the effect was negative!

My teeth got all stained—something I hated. I stopped talking to people as I did not want to expose my teeth. This was becoming a problem as I was climbing up the corporate ladder. I was worried that I would be setting a bad example, though nobody said anything to me about it. I used to have a spittoon next to my chair in the office and I would spit into it every few minutes. One day, our Chairman, Dr Prathap C. Reddy, came to my office and sat in my chair. He looked around and saw the spittoon. His expressions changed. The look on his face was one of utter disgust.

The Chairman immediately got up and walked out without saying a word. I was embarrassed to the core. I could not face him. We continued to interact for work, but I avoided meeting him for several weeks. My embarrassment got the better of me and I decided to do something about it. I could see that this habit of mine had a huge impact on my personality, and I was not liking it. I had to stop chewing zarda paan at any cost.

My resolve to solve the problem took me back to the day I had met Pankaj. I recalled that my smoking guru was chewing raw tobacco, had no stains, and could speak normally even with tobacco in his mouth. I knew I would not be able to chew raw tobacco, so I decided to innovate. I tried mixing some part of raw tobacco with chewing gum, and it worked! I got rid of the stains on my teeth and went back to being my usual self

Although it solved my immediate problem, I knew at the back of my mind that chewing tobacco was just as harmful as chewing zarda paan or smoking, if not more. I kept ignoring the warnings on the packets and the voice of my conscience. I kept dreading the consequences but continued to take it. In 2016, I went on a business trip to the USA. The day I landed, I had severe headache and walked into a pharmacy to pick up some paracetamol tablets. The thoughts that I kept burying surfaced again when I saw a counter flooded with nicotine gum. I wondered what was safer—chewing the gum and tobacco mix or the nicotine gum. I asked the pharmacist in the store about it, and she was very helpful. She explained why and how nicotine gum was far safer than tobacco. She asked me to try the gum and gave me a long lecture about the harmful effects of consuming tobacco. 

There was nothing new in what she told me—I knew everything she said. But I was still not convinced that nicotine gum could help me get rid of tobacco. Nevertheless, I bought a pack as I did not want to disappoint the pharmacist. Having bought the nicotine gum, I decided to give it a try but kept my stock of tobacco intact. Within three days, the craving for tobacco came down; the nicotine gum was doing its job.

Thrilled at the progress, I threw away my stock of tobacco and headed to the pharmacy to stock up on nicotine gum and to thank the pharmacist. She was proud and happy that she had managed to get me off tobacco. I bought a year’s stock of nicotine gum. I did have a couple of packets of tobacco at home, but I asked my children to dispose them off for me, to which they gladly complied. My journey with tobacco had come to an end.

It took me thirty-four years to give up tobacco, and I’m still not sure about the extent of damage it has done to my body. It has been more than three years since I quit. And a lot has happened since. Tobacco in any form is a killer. It is very easy to light the first cigarette or chew tobacco for the first time, but let me assure you that it is a dangerous journey down a steep cliff. Consuming tobacco is the worst type of addiction and the most difficult to get rid of. Giving up any form of addiction takes a lot of courage, determination and, most importantly, a drastic shift in the mindset. People often use self-pity as an excuse to continue with various forms of addiction. We hear them say that they smoke or drink because they feel stressed and indulging in these helps them let off steam and relax. Some people drink or smoke when they celebrate. Looking at the trends, it seems that the ability to indulge in certain addictions is an indicator of one’s happiness. Addictions have become part of the lifestyle of our youth, and many can’t imagine living without them…

Excerpted with permission from 'I’M Possible: It is possible for you too' by Dr K Hari Prasad, published by Kitabaan Publications.  You can buy the book here

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