Guest Commentary

Wai Young

Time Lost To Tobacco

When I think of my father, Chung Fan Siu, I recall his constant struggle with nicotine addiction. He smoked for over 70 years. It is Dad’s life – and his eventual death – that I recall when I speak of the dangers of cigarette smoking. We could have had Dad with us a lot longer than we did, if not for the cigarettes.

A former mayor of his village before the 1949 revolution, my father was a very handsome, engaging, outgoing person. My fondest memory of Dad was his preparing Sunday dinner for the family. He noted the favourite foods of all seven of us children, and later the grandchildren. He cooked amazing soups, and cow tongue – a specialty he made for me.  Later, after I moved away, he always set aside a portion in the freezer ready for travel.

Dad was born in 1918 in the farming village of Dai Chung, in Zhongshan, where Dr. Sun Yat Sen was from. My mother, Hung Wan Siu, was from a very traditional Chinese family; she had bound feet as a child. My parents’ marriage was the last sedan-carried wedding in the village. Dad was a successful businessman; he built up the Kodak film distributorship in south China and operated several photography studios where he photographed the rich and famous of his day.

Dad started smoking as a 12-year old boy. It was the Great Depression in China, and the country suffered terribly with famine. I remember him telling us stories about how people foraged in the fields for something to eat, and smoking was an appetite suppressant.

During this time, smoking was widely popular in China, and still is. The Communist Party maintains a tobacco monopoly at state-run factories, and it remains a vibrant and hugely profitable trade. But there are signs of hope. The Chinese State Council has asked Communist Party officials not to smoke in public places to set a good example. Just think what will happen to the health of a country of 1.3 billion people if its leaders continue to educate Chinese citizens on the effects of smoking.

My father fled China during the Cultural Revolution. We moved to Hong Kong, where I was born, and emigrated to Vancouver in 1965. During that time cigarettes were inexpensive, pennies a pack, and Dad still smoked.

Dad’s friends liked to hang out at the race track, so he would join them and make small bets. All his friends smoked and I remember being with him and waving away the thick blue smoke. My mother grew to hate cigarettes; she banned smoking in our home, and Dad would huddle outside to have a cigarette. I remember it was an ongoing battle. Dad tried to quit many, many times – he made it through a whole year once – but it was too difficult, and he would fall back.

Several years before he died, Dad developed a cough that grew progressively worse. The few times he saw a doctor, he was told it was the flu. When the coughing became a prolonged hacking that was so severe his eyes filled with tears, he still could not stop smoking. Eventually, his cough became so painful that he finally got tested and they found cancer had spread from his lungs to all his internal organs. In the end, Dad was so weak he could no longer walk or feed himself. I saw him for the last time on his 89th birthday; I brought him a cake. I couldn’t even eat it.

I am proud of Canada’s record. Canada was the first country in the world to ban cigarette advertising and eliminate smoking in federal buildings when Conservative Health Minister Jake Epp introduced legislation in 1987. The international press then called Canada a “leader in the anti-smoking crusade”.

We can do more. Canada is still plagued by black market trafficking that puts contraband tobacco in the hands of Canadian youth. We still hear stories of children as young as 12 who are starting to smoke. There is no reason in the world why this should continue.

My father was blessed with the Chinese gift of longevity; he never suffered from dementia or chronic ailments, and might have lived even longer if not for tobacco. Smoking took away years I will never get back.

(Editor’s note: the author is former Conservative MP for Vancouver South)

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