THE image was glamorous and cool thanks to movie stars puffing their way through films and images of celebrities lighting up.
Ellen Finnie wanted to be cool too – even though she could hardly see the Fifties’ movie stars on the cinema screen through the thick fog of smoke that engulfed her local picture house.
“We were all the same back then,” she says, struggling to catch her breath. “The ultimate ambition was to look like Veronica Lake, Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart. Everyone was smoking.”
It might have been the height of style at the time to strike a light and disappear behind a curtain of fumes, but years later Ellen admits there’s not much glamour to be found gasping for breath just trying to do the simplest of tasks.
For even though she stubbed out her last cigarette nearly 20 years ago, the legacy of decades of puffing away is an incurable condition which can only get worse.
“Everyone thinks smoking is only about cancer,” says Ellen, 77, pointing out that she’s not escaped that nightmare either thanks to a tumour on her lung 12 years ago. “But this COPD is terrible, there are so many people affected but no-one talks about it.
“No-one does a fun run to raise money for COPD. And hardly anyone has even heard of it.”
Yet COPD – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – is the UK’s fifth biggest killer. Around a million people in the UK have been diagnosed – although three million are suspected to be affected – and it kills 4500 Scots every year. It is the only major cause of death in Scotland which is on the increase.
At least 14,000 people in Lothian have COPD and 7,000 in Edinburgh alone, although the true number of sufferers is thought to be much higher.
Worryingly, experts predict the numbers affected by it are almost certainly set to soar dramatically in years to come, as an ageing population of smokers – even those who have quit – find themselves affected.
Linked to smoking and to a lesser extent pollution and chemicals, COPD is used to describe a number of conditions including chronic bronchitis, emphysema and chronic obstructive airways disease, which cause the air passages to the lung and lung tissue to be damaged.
Sufferers like Ellen, of Craiglockhart, struggle to take air in and out of their lungs, leaving them increasingly breathless and with a chronic “smokers” cough.
Eventually the condition can become so bad that sufferers are out of breath just sitting down.
It’s a side of smoking that Ellen knew nothing about when she lit up for the first time at just 14 years old, encouraged by the glamorous image of smoking. In reality, she’d been breathing in second-hand smoke from the day she was born.
“I was born in a room and kitchen and my dad would smoke 30 a day, so I was inhaling cigarette smoke from the minute I was born,” she says.
“When I got older, everyone was smoking. I went to the cinema, to The Grand in Stockbridge, and you couldn’t see the screen for the smoke, everyone was puffing on pipes and cigarettes. It was incredible when you think back.
“My father died from emphysema. He told me “stop smoking, it’s a mug’s game” and I used to say “I’ll do it next year” because I was aware of becoming more and more breathless.
“I’m not stupid but I had a mental block about it. I was getting more breathless but I didn’t do anything about it.
“I’d smoke around 20 a day and then start on a second packet. But on days when I’d be playing bridge into the night, I could be getting on to a third packet.”
She eventually quit, but smoking had already seriously damaged her health – and her smoker husband Gordon’s. Twelve years ago she underwent surgery to remove two thirds of her right lung after doctors found a tumour.
And she was left a widow 15 months ago after Gordon died just weeks after also being diagnosed with lung cancer. Ellen believes she had been living with COPD for years but dismissed her breathlessness as being nothing to worry about.
“I was always a bit breathless, I’d never take the stairs at work for example,” she adds. “But the breathlessness got worse over the past five or six years.
“Now going out of the house is like a military campaign. I plan everything. I can walk downhill for the bus but coming back I have to take a taxi so I don’t have to walk back up the hill.”
She checks her oxygen levels daily and does regular breathing exercises, while inhalers and a nebuliser help reduce swelling in the airways. While symptoms can be eased, there is no cure.
Recent figures show an increasing number of women are being diagnosed with the condition, while the World Health Organisation ranks Scotland as having one of the highest rates of COPD among the world’s industrialised nations.
According to Lorna Stevenson, Respiratory Co-ordinator at Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland, many people are believed to be living with COPD without knowing.
“The true number of people with COPD is likely to be far higher as many of those affected do not realise it. They confuse their symptoms with getting older and being “out of shape”. However, effective treatments are available which can make a huge difference to their quality of life.”
Symptoms include regular coughing, bringing up phlegm or mucus most days and breathlessness. The over 40s and a history of smoking are most at risk.
“If somebody has three or more of the symptoms they should ask their GP about a simple breathing test called spirometry. This measures lung function,” adds Lorna.
“Although there is no cure for COPD, there are a number of medications and lifestyle changes that can be made at any stage of the disease. These will help people feel better and live a more active, fulfilling life. It’s never too late.”
n For more detail about COPD, visit Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland at www.cssh.org.uk.