Shoba Maharaj, 60 was 18  when she started smoking.

“It was a great night with friends, I asked a friend to pass me the cigarette so I could smoke. Most of them begged me not to, but I was determined to experiment. That night I became a smoker without thinking it through,” said Maharaj.

About 15 years later, Maharaj who now smoked two packets of cigarettes a day, started experiencing chest problems which would not go away.

For her it was more like a wake-up call, and she had to act fast and take control of her life.

“It was one of the best decisions I’ve made. My life improved I became healthy and my sense of smell improved. I could now taste food better. It felt like I was a new person,” she said.

Smoking is receiving attention this month as May is an anti-smoking month and May 31 is observed as World No Tobacco Day. The World Health Organisation uses this day to highlight the threats of tobacco to the development of nations worldwide, and to call on governments to implement strong tobacco control measures.

In South Africa, almost 20% of the population smoke, with males smoking four times more than females.

This habit is arguably one of the biggest man-made contributors to mortality, with current research showing it kills thousands of people around the world every year.

Last year, the Western Cape had the highest smoking prevalence in SA, with almost 33% of smokers in this province.

Savera Kalideen from the National Council Against Smoking, says every year 44000 people die from illnesses caused by smoking such as lung cancer, strokes and heart disease.

“This is because cigarettes and second-hand smoke contains more than a 1000 toxins and more than 80 cancer-causing chemicals. Some of these chemicals are rat poison, toilet cleaner, disinfectant and lighter fuel,” said Kalideen.

But why is smoking considered an addictive disease?

Kalideen said nicotine is the only drug that is found in tobacco. When a person smokes, the nicotine is absorbed into the blood stream, which reaches the brain within 10 seconds.

“This makes you feel good because it is acting on the pleasure centre of the brain. The effect of the nicotine wears off quickly though, so the smoker takes another cigarette to get that feeling of a high again.”

The body quickly gets used to the nicotine. If you don’t get nicotine, you feel irritable and angry, so each time you smoke it makes you feel good again. Eventually, you only feel “normal” when you have a cigarette, said Kalideen.

Although she knows the health risk of smoking which includes lung cancers, damaged heart and disrupted blood circulation, increased risk of developing conditions such as heart attack, Maharaj admits that she didn’t think twice about lighting up a cigarette when she was stressed, especially when she was going through a divorce after 30 of marriage.

“I asked my friend who was smoking in the house, after my husband left, to give me a cigarette thinking that I could handle one. As soon as she left I drove to the nearest shop to get a packet. It is true that once you become an addict you are always in recovery and you should never think that you can be able to resist, says Maharaj.

She admits that living with the addiction is challenging, and chances of relapsing are high, especially when you are stressed. She has relapsed twice since her divorce about seven years ago.

Following her relapse in 2011 she now smokes about six cigarettes a day - a far cry from the 24 to 26 cigarettes a day. She confesses that smoking is one of the most expensive habits to maintain.

For those trying to quit smoking Kalideen suggests that a smoker should think about why he or she wants to quit and be very clear about this motivation.

“This is what will keep the smoker away from cigarettes once the decision to quit is actioned.

Adopting a healthy lifestyle after quitting smoking can help an ex-smokers to stay motivated. Kalideen suggests that every time an ex-smoker craves a cigarette, they should have a glass of water, eat a piece of fruit, take a small walk, talk to a friend or listen to music in the time they would normally smoke a cigarette.

If you have already started the quitting journey, she advises that you take one day at a time.

“Focus on the challenge of staying away from cigarettes today," she said.