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Another lousy wet day to be a homeless smoker

March 22, 2015

Where there’s smokes there’s fire, unless the smokes are too wet to light.

Despite being homeless and despite having still been a smoker just a little over three years ago, I cannot remember feeling the aggravation reported by many of my homeless colleagues who still smoke and tell me how difficult it is to find dry cigarette butts on rainy days like today (or yesterday or the day before for that matter).

That’s because, while I was still a homeless smoker, I insisted on earning the money necessary so I could smoke store-bought “tailor-mades”.

In a city as regularly rained on as Vancouver, B.C., trying to satisfy a nicotine habit with the cigarette butts discarded by other smokers is (among other things) an exercise in futility, a recipe for frustration and often just a waste of time.

At the very least it requires a degree of planning and dedication out of all proportion to the reward.

A dedicated butt picker has to learn where the dry covered ashtrays are located and learn when the best times to check them are (usually just “frequently”) and they have to contend with all the other butt pickers — the lucky victor gets the tobacco-equivilent of used tea bags (assuming that people actually sucked on tea bags).

A study in futility

In a way, homeless smokers are conducting a behavioural study on themselves; testing their limits; gauging how much difficulty they will put up with before they quit smoking.

The findings, so far as I can tell, are that homeless smokers will endure any difficulties — both economic and physical — to maintain their habit. This suggests that more than just an addiction is at play; there seems to be a principal involved.

Of course smoking is a very addictive habit but it’s as if people living on the streets (or near as to living on them) cling to their nicotine habits all the more because they’ve lost almost everything else — cigarettes are a kind of line in the sand for them. And then there’s the fact that it’s the one drug habit they are legally allowed to indulge in.

And the not-so-small matter of boredom.

It’s admittedly simplistic and judgmental to say but by my subjective standards, an awful lot of street people I’ve gotten to actually know in the last 10 years live fairly delimited lives. They earn money to buy what they must: certainly drugs and/or alcohol and food and cigarettes if the latter can’t be found. They drink the alcohol and/or do the drugs and/or smoke the cigarettes to pass (or blot out) the time not spent binning. Crystal meth does double-duty for some of these people, helping them to pass the otherwise dull time while they methodically bin or dumpster dive, in order to continue the above cycle.

If the homeless people I’m referring to (which includes a lot of once-and-future homeless people) didn’t have substances to use and abuse then I honestly don’t know how they would fill their time. The closest things many of these people have to hobbies are binning and chatting with each other and drinking or doing street drugs or smoking.

What to plug the holes with if not cigarettes?

All smokers who try to quit face the same problem of having to fill all those moments when they would otherwise light up a cigarette.People in the so-called normal world who try to quit smoking often have oodles of diversions: 24-hour Internet connectivity, cable television, pets, friends they can phone for support, gyms the can go work out at, even carpets they can chew on if need be. And many of them do have hobbies.

But on top of all the other ways that people living on the street are impoverished, they also have a poverty of diversions to take their minds off cigarettes, should they try to quit.

Among the many homeless people who say they don’t want to quit smoking, I know there are many that simply don’t believe themselves capable of quitting — whether they want to or not — so they simply refuse to try.

This, I think, is what comes of telling people that they have an addictive personality.

As one such fatalistic homeless smoker put it to me, his tongue firmly planted in his cheek: “I’m not a quitter!”

The smoking cessation program that makes no difference

I have to say that so far as I can tell, British Columbia’s nearly two-and-a-half-year-old Smoking Cessation Program, offering free support to help smokers quit, hasn’t helped anyone I know to quit smoking.

The program, when it was launched in September of 2011, allowed any B.C. resident to get up to 84 days of nicotine replacement therapy or smoking cessation drugs for free each calendar year through PharmaCare.

It still does apparently but I’ll be darned if I can find any uptake statistics more recent than 2013, when Vancouver Coastal Health trumpeted the fact that there were 21,695 takers for free nicotine replacement therapy (patches or gum) in the VCH’s region in the first year of the program.

In 2013 there was a CBC post about a controversy concerning the smoking-cessation drug Champix being covered by the program but since then there appears to have been zero coverage of what was originally projected to be a major $15- to $25-million-a-year program.

And as I said, I don’t know of a single homeless or socially-housed near-homeless smoker receiving B.C. benefits (and thus PharmaCare) who has ever taken advantage of the program. Click the image to enlarge it.

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