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Can’t quit, won’t quit: confessions of a die-hard smoker | Smoking

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I have asthma, and there’s a fairly major respiratory disease going around, as you may have heard, and also I am a smoker. A quick inventory of my coat pockets: inhaler, face mask, Marlboro Gold. I never fell into smoking as a teenager when everyone else seemed to think it was cool, but took it up in my 30s, as others might develop an interest in birdwatching, or CrossFit. Four or five a day, for the best part of a decade, and more at the weekends. This piece is anonymous because my mother cannot know. I don’t have the words to express how unbelievably stupid I feel about all this.

There’s quite a lot going on here, and not all of it is solely of interest to me and my therapist. You might imagine that a continuing and lung-buggering international emergency which a study says is specifically more dangerous for smokers would mean there were fewer idiots like me. But in fact, stress and boredom are more than a match for serious health concerns: research published in August last year suggested that the number of young adults smoking in England went up by about a quarter during the first lockdown. There was a spike in the number of people across all ages giving up smoking in England during that same first lockdown period – but no sign of the plummeting rates you might rationally expect. Then again, nothing about this habit has ever been rational.

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For my own part, I don’t know exactly what kind of smoker I am, but I know I’m not casual, or social: I’m highly committed to something very unpopular. The persistence of the packet in my pocket is not for the want of trying. It’s more for a want of wanting. My figurative heart just isn’t in it, although my literal heart would probably have quite strong opinions in the opposite direction. (Unlucky, literal heart, only sentient organs get a vote!) I don’t suppose I speak for the other 1.1bn people still grimly puffing away, but it feels as if my problem is that I still, somewhere in my lizard brain, think this habit that makes me smell awful and look desperate is … cool, a deftly executed little ritual that makes me a more compelling figure to people at a party. Did you feel cool when you were a teenager, my therapist asks, and it’s obvious to us both that the question is a rhetorical one.

That makes a grim sort of sense, but it’s probably also a crutch, and a way to ignore the obvious fact that I’m addicted. After all, I’ve barely been to any parties for quite a long time and, apart from the neighbour’s terminally unimpressed cat, there’s no audience when I’m huddled in the back garden on a rainy Tuesday morning getting ash on myself.

I started, for reasons I don’t fully understand, as some sort of warped, bloody-minded reinvention shortly after a breakup. I should have known from my permanent inability to leave half a pack of sweets in a cupboard for the next day that it wouldn’t work; before long I had slipped from a pack a month to one every few days.

I wish I had properly understood then how insidious an addiction nicotine would turn out to be, how misleading and unhelpful the term “craving” would prove, at least for me: it suggests a siren in your brain when you go without, when the truth is something more like the little fillip you get when it occurs to you that you’d like a cup of tea and a biscuit. I don’t often leave it long enough to be faced with a more powerful compulsion than that, but because it doesn’t seem especially intense, I almost always give in to it. I think I have a constitutional weakness for treats.

I still don’t think I really, deeply, want to stop, or understand how urgently I have to. But I know I don’t want this bleak internal monologue motoring in my head any more: an endless, boring chunter that slides into my mind any time I’m not thinking about anything much. It may be that the pandemic’s additional opportunities for mental drift has helped me reach at least this caveated breakthrough, because in 2021 I started Juul-ing. Whereas previous attempts failed spectacularly – the time I lit up while chewing Nicorette is a particular low point – this time, I’ve gone more than a week between cigarettes, at the cost of an umbilical attachment to a mysterious little obelisk whose long-term impacts remain unknown. I buy menthol vape pods in bulk and feel nervous if the battery light blinks red. I always come back to smoking in the end, but the gaps are getting a bit longer, and a bit easier to tolerate.

None of this is consoling. Helpful though the vaping is, and good though I feel about smoking less, I seem to be stuck on it as a harm-reduction method, not a step towards kicking the habit. I tell myself that once all this – I am waving my hands at the universe – has eased off a little, I’ll really get on with it.

The prospect of slowly killing myself is fixed as an abstraction. I feel I’d stop if I were having a kid, but that might just be another rationalisation for putting it off. So here I am, the sort of person who vapes behind their hand in Zoom meetings, and blows a conspicuous little cloud out of the corner of his mouth as if anyone’s not going to notice it because it comes out sideways.

I miss being the person I was before I smoked, when I had no idea how much of a luxury it was never to have thought about it, and I know that even if I succeed in giving up nicotine completely, that victory will be shadowed by an obscure sense of loss. I also can’t believe how much less funny this piece is than I meant it to be. But maybe, two years into a global pandemic, that counts for personal growth: the ability to face the absurdity of the harm you are doing to yourself as something more consequential than a morbid joke.

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Solar storms may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in a given year

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In an approximate 11-year cycle, the sun blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field, which may disrupt our body clock and ultimately affect our heart



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17 June 2022

A solar storm

Jurik Peter/Shutterstock

Solar storms that disrupt Earth’s magnetic field may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in the US in a given year.

The sun goes through cycles of high and low activity that repeat approximately every 11 years. During periods of high activity, it blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field.

These so-called solar storms can cause glitches in our power grids and bring down Earth-orbiting satellites. A handful of studies have also hinted that they increase the risk of …

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UK Covid infection rate rising, with more than a million cases in England | Coronavirus

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Coronavirus infections are rising in the UK, figures have revealed, with experts noting the increase is probably down to the more transmissible BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants.

The figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), based on swabs collected from randomly selected households, reveal that in the week ending 11 June an estimated one in 50 people in the community in England are thought to have had Covid – around 1.13 million people.

The figure is even higher, at one in 45, in both Wales and Northern Ireland, while it was highest in Scotland where, in the week ending 10 June, one in 30 people are thought to have been infected.

While the figures remain below the peak levels of infection seen earlier this year, when around one in 13 people in England had Covid, the findings are a rise on the previous week where one in 70 people in England were thought to be infected. Furthermore, the data reveals increases in all regions of England, except the north-east, and across all age groups.

Experts say that a key factor in the increase is probably the rise of the Covid variants of concern BA.4 and BA.5.

“Infections have increased across all four UK nations, driven by rising numbers of people infected with the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants,” said Kara Steel, senior statistician for the Covid-19 Infection Survey.

While Steel said it remained too early to say if this was the start of another wave, others have warned it may already have begun, with increased mixing and travelling among other factors fuelling a rise in cases.

Among concerns scientists have raised are that BA.4, BA.5 and another variant on the rise, BA.2.12.1, replicate more efficiently in human lung cells than BA.2.

Prof Azra Ghani, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, said the latest figures were not surprising, and might rise further.

“This increase in infection prevalence is likely due to the growth of the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants, which as we have seen elsewhere in Europe, appear to be able to escape immunity generated from previous Omicron subvariants,” she said.

“It is therefore possible that we will continue to see some growth in infection prevalence in the coming weeks and consequently an increase in hospitalisations, although these subvariants do not currently appear to result in any significantly changed severity profile. This does however serve as a reminder that the Covid-19 pandemic is not over.”

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NHS to offer women in England drug that cuts recurrence of breast cancer | Breast cancer

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Thousands of women in England with breast cancer are to benefit from a new pill on the NHS which reduces the risk of the disease coming back.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has given the green light to abemaciclib, which cuts the chance of breast cancer returning after a patient has had surgery to remove a tumour.

Trials showed that patients who had the drug with hormone therapy had a more than 30% improved chance of their cancer not coming back after surgery, compared with hormone therapy alone.

“It’s fantastic thousands of women with this type of primary breast cancer will now have an additional treatment option available on the NHS to help further reduce the risk of the disease coming back,” said Delyth Morgan, the chief executive of charity Breast Cancer Now.

“The fear of breast cancer returning or spreading to other parts of their body and becoming incurable can cause considerable anxiety for so many women and their loved ones.

“New effective treatments such as abemaciclib, which can offer more women the chance to further reduce the risk of the disease recurring, are therefore extremely welcome and this is an important step change in the drug options available for this group of patients.”

The twice-a-day pill is suitable for women with hormone receptor-positive, HER2-negative, node-positive early breast cancer at high risk of recurrence who have had surgery. About 4,000 women will benefit initially, Nice said.

Helen Knight, the interim director of medicines evaluation at Nice, said the draft recommendation came less than a month after abemaciclib received its licence.

“The fact that we have been able to produce draft recommendations so quickly is testament to the success of our ambition to support patient access to clinically and cost effective treatments as early as possible,” said Knight. “Until now there have been no targeted treatments for people with this type of breast cancer.

“Abemaciclib with hormone therapy represents a significant improvement in how it is treated because being able to have a targeted treatment earlier after surgery will increase the chance of curing the disease and reduce the likelihood of developing incurable advanced disease.”

Abemaciclib works by targeting and inhibiting proteins in cancer cells which allow the cancer to divide and grow. It normally costs £2,950 for a packet of 56 150mg-tablets, but the manufacturer, Eli Lilly, has agreed an undisclosed discounted price for NHS England.

“Thanks in part to this latest deal struck by NHS England, NHS patients will be able to access another new targeted drug for a common and aggressive form of breast cancer,” said Prof Peter Johnson, the cancer director of NHS England.

“Abemaciclib, when used alongside a hormone therapy, offers a new, doubly targeted, treatment option, helping to increase the chances of beating the cancer for good, as well as meeting the NHS’s commitment to delivering improved cancer care under our long-term plan.”

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