Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Inspiring women

I’m fortunate that my work brings me into contact with many inspiring people, people who generously engage their hearts and minds towards envisioning and striving for a brighter future. This month I’d like to mention two of the inspiring women whose paths have crossed mine in the past few weeks.

The first is Dr Judith Mackay. Judith made time during her annual holiday visit to Scotland and in her packed calendar to come in and catch up with our work and to update me on steady progress in tobacco control in Asia. Judith was for long years a lone campaigning voice on tobacco in Asia, labouring unpaid and in the teeth of ferocious opposition to raise awareness of the harm tobacco does. She argued successfully for measures to reduce its malign influence, and she continues to put her energy into making progress towards smoke free. She co-authored the Tobacco Atlas and was a chief architect of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the first international public health treaty designed to tackle the tobacco epidemic worldwide.

Dr Judith Mackay accepting BMJ award

In recent years, Judith’s commitment and influence have been recognised, twice by Time magazine as one of the Time Asia Heroes in 2006 and in the Time 100 in 2007. She was awarded an OBE in 2008, and her work was recognised by the BMJ readership with their lifetime achievement award in 2009. Meeting Judith is always inspiring because she shows unstinting passion and courage in continuing to challenge Big Tobacco’s predations, and because she has made and continues to make such a positive difference in so many people’s lives.

My second inspiring woman is Ailsa. Ailsa was a smoker for 35 years, quitting just before her 60th birthday. It wasn’t her first quit attempt, and this time it was concern for her cat that motivated her to seek help. Ailsa had mental health problems, and she found she smoked more when she was in hospital because she felt frightened and insecure. Some people had told her she shouldn’t stop, that the timing wasn’t right.

For Ailsa, stopping smoking was a positive choice. With advice and group support she ditched tobacco and now she feels so much better. She can taste food, she isn’t breathless, and quitting smoking has given her new self confidence. Best of all, quitting smoking has meant her medication could be reduced, so her mind is clearer and she feels good that she has fewer chemicals in her body. Sparky her cat appreciates it too! Ailsa made a video to share her story, with photos and her own commentary. It is quirky and moving, and entirely her own. I hope she will decide to share it more widely, as I think many people will find something to identify with in her story.

Cigarettes are often presented as an adult or lifestyle choice. The reality is they are a highly engineered, highly toxic product that is sold on the image but is rooted in addiction and habit. Tobacco is a grim epidemic, although as someone pointed out, unlike other epidemics there is an added dimension. Malaria kills people, but mosquitoes don’t have PR agencies and expensive promotions budgets.